American cancer patient speaks with an Irish accent due to brain damage

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An American man after being diagnosed with prostate cancer developed an “uncontrollable Irish accent” that he kept until his death, researchers report in the scientific journal BMJ.

The man, who was “somewhere in his 50s” according to investigators, had no immediate family in Ireland. He may have suffered from foreign accent syndrome, in which brain damage causes people to speak with an accent that resembles a certain foreign accent.

The researchers suspect that the change in emphasis was due to a condition in which a cancer patient’s immune system attacks parts of the brain, among other things. According to the researchers, this is the third time that a cancer patient has developed the syndrome in question and the first time that this has happened in someone with prostate cancer.

The American in question lived in England for a short time around the age of twenty and had distant relatives in Ireland. But the researchers say he never spoke with an Irish accent before he got cancer.

‘Very rare’

Foreign accent syndrome is one of the language problems that result from brain damage. “It is a very rare condition,” says Roy Kessels, professor of neuropsychology at Radboud University in Nijmegen. “In patients with language disorders, it is usually the case that they can no longer find words or pronounce words.”

He explains that this is mainly due to damage to two areas of the brain: Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. “But foreign accent syndrome occurs in all kinds of brain disorders and is not in a specific area of ​​the brain. It does occur most often in the frontal lobe, the front parts of the brain.”

These kind of patients are simply easy to understand.

Roy Kessels, professor of neuropsychology

Kessels says he knows no examples of colleagues in the Netherlands who have had to deal with a patient with the syndrome. Dysarthria is common, however, as a result of which patients can no longer speak properly due to damage to the nervous system and in some cases can even sound ‘drunk’ because they speak with a double tongue. Kessels: “But patients with the foreign accent syndrome can simply be understood.”

Several cases of the syndrome are known internationally. For example, the BBC writes about a British woman who suffered a stroke in 2006 and suddenly seemed to speak with a Jamaican accent. The example is also mentioned of a Norwegian woman who was injured in the Second World War and then spoke with a German accent.

‘Cancer treatment more important’

Neuropsychologist Kessels doubts whether it makes sense to treat the speech disorder. “Someone who speaks falteringly as a result of a brain disorder can be taught to make clear what he or she means in a different way. The question is where the priority lies here. I think I would rather treat the prostate cancer than this language disorder. “

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