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Replay: Talking heads (Rebuilding language after stroke)

16 Mar, 2012

A stroke is such a terrifying prospect because there’s no way of knowing what impact it will have. A heart attack has a clearly defined – though equally unwelcome – target, while an ulcer will gradually eat away at the intestine, but a stroke occurs suddenly, anywhere amid the billions of neurons that form a brain.

The biology of a stroke is almost crudely simple. A blood vessel in the brain ruptures or becomes blocked by an obstruction; either way, the result’s the same – downstream neurons are deprived of the blood’s vital cargo of oxygen and glucose. Neurons have a rapacious appetite and without this constant supply of nutrients, they quickly starve and start to die.

With little or no warning, a person can suddenly find themselves robbed of the ability to move one or more limbs (motor cortex damage), with impaired vision (visual cortex damage) or having lost the ability to speak.

In Talking heads, I had the privilege of meeting several people who had suffered a stroke robbing them of speech. This is a film that needs few bells and whistles – fast cuts and ‘fancy shots’ would have undermined the simple, uncomfortable anguish that results from watching someone try – and fail – to do something we take so deeply for granted.

At the heart of the film, Dr Alex Leff and Professor Cathy Price from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging’s Language Group are trying to both pinpoint where in the brain a stroke has occurred in people who have lost the ability to speak and understand how their brains gradually regain the ability to comprehend and use language. When an area of brain associated with speech dies, rather than an entirely new brain area picking up the speech baton, it seems that language-capable regions that have survived the stroke intact are able to rebuild the required pathways – but via different routes. Cathy refers to these alternatives as ‘degenerate’ pathways – the implication being that the brain has several ways of achieving the same goal.

Beyond the neurological insights, a reason this film stands out for me is the warmth of the relationship between Jean and Michael Green. Here were two happy, successful people; then Michael suffered a stroke (on live television) and suddenly lost the capacity for speech. Despite this hugely significant hurdle, the support and depth of affection they display for each other is both powerful and incredibly moving. So much so that it transcends the need for words.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 17 Mar, 2012 7:07 pm

    Excellent film. I suffered a massive stroke eight years ago, I am 61 years old now. I live in California.

    Sincerely, Ralph Edsell

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