Brain Wonders: Girl wakes from coma speaking new language

by Renée Canada

The brain is a fascinating and complex organ. Not only is it in charge of our body’s breathing, heart rate, and other autonomic functions, but it controls our body’s balance, posture, and coordination of movement including for vision. Even more fascinating is its role in mood, reasoning, decision-making, and abstract thought.

Despite the protection of a hard skull, the brain is a delicate organ, subject to deficiencies and injury. Some of you might have read neurologist Oliver Sack’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which described case histories of patients who had altered brain functions, many of which resulted in unusual phenomena such as spontaneous reminiscences as altered perceptions. In one case, for example, “The Lost Mariner”, due to a brain disorder caused by the lack of vitamin B1, lost the ability to form new memories. Although he is living in the late ’70s/early ’80s, he believes it is 1945 and can remember nothing of his life since the end of WWII. Another patient has a visual impairment where he cannot recognize ordinary objects like a flower, a glove, or human faces. He tries to shake hands with a parking meter.

However, the brain is often capable of adapting to difficult circumstances. For example, studies of children have shown that if the left hemisphere of the brain, often the center of specialized language abilities, is damaged in a child, the child may develop language in the right hemisphere instead. The younger the child, the better the recovery.

Some of you might have heard of Foreign Accent Syndrome. This extremely rare brain disorder can result from a stroke or head injury. CindyLou Romberg suffered a depressed skull fracture after falling out of a moving truck. After a chiropractic adjustment, despite never having left her small town in Washington state, she began speaking with a Russian accent, though she sometimes also slips into replacing her w’s with v’s like a Swede. After a stroke, Linda Walker from Newcastle, UK, lost her Geordie accent and began speaking alternately with a Jamaican, French Canadian, Italian, or Slovak accent.

So, taking it one step further, the latest news of a Croatian teenager waking from a coma speaking fluent German didn’t surprise me at all. I find it fascinating what the brain will retain or further develop, even as we age. The mind is a terrible thing to take for granted, and hearing stories like this make me cherish and want to expand and develop my mind to the fullest possible. Feel free to comment with any links to sites that encourage exercising your brain.

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