Foreign Accent Syndrome and the Brain

By now I’m sure you’ve seen the news story about the Australian woman who developed an Irish accent about 10 days after she underwent surgery on her tonsils. This seems to be one of those cases of Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), which she thinks she might have. Before I retired from my role as a general hospital psychiatric consultant, I never saw a case of FAS.

You can find the University of Texas at Dallas website on FAS, where you learn more about the condition. It’s a very rare speech disorder which usually develops suddenly, causing a native speaker to speak in a “foreign” accent. It can be caused by a brain injury, such as a stroke. The prevailing opinion of neurologists and speech therapists is that most people who have FAS don’t actually speak with a sustained, well-defined foreign accent per se. In fact, they can sound like they have different accents at different times. It’s sort of all in the ears of the beholder, so to speak (pun intended).

What makes FAS even more complicated and interesting is that it can develop in the absence of any clearly identifiable medical cause. It can be a psychogenic disorder, a term which can lead to an immediate backlash from those who have been diagnosed by neurologists and primary care physicians with something called Functional Neurological Disorder (FND)—a relatively new name. It’s intended to be less stigmatizing than other psychiatric diagnoses such as conversion disorder and somatic symptom disorder. As I mentioned above, I’d never encountered a case of FAS, but neurologists and a lot of other colleagues in medicine and surgery consulted me to evaluate their hospitalized patients for other types of FND. Most commonly they were having multiple medically unexplained symptoms including but not limited to hemiparesis or hemisensory loss or spells which mimicked seizures but which didn’t produce abnormal EEG patterns. This was always a challenge, starting from the point of introducing myself as a psychiatric consultant. The patient’s reaction was often that of annoyance because their impression was that their doctors thought they were crazy simply because they called me in on the case.

I always began the evaluation by doing a thorough review of the patient’s medical record, which was often very long and complicated, involving notes from many specialists, many medical tests including surgeries and other invasive procedures, and long medication lists. I listened to their description of their medical problems first, which often included a lot of complaints against doctors who almost invariably were described as invalidating or incompetent or both.

I usually avoided any attempt to convince them their main issues were psychiatric in nature. I ran across one web site which reminded me how counterproductive that approach can be. Occasionally I could connect with someone by simply validating the difficulties they had suffered with all aspects of the health care system. I would ask, “Has a doctor ever implied you were a hypochondriac?” and “Have you ever run into doctors who just didn’t listen?”

Depending on whether the patient and I had developed adequate rapport, I might say that I thought the problem was in their body and that the mind is a part of the body, especially since the mind is connected with the brain. I would also say that patients are entitled to excellent health care and this should be delivered safely, avoiding potentially dangerous and toxic treatments whenever possible.

Because I frequently had to enter a diagnosis of a somatoform disorder in the patient’s chart (which they would eventually see), I would talk to them about somatoform disorder, emphasizing that the root of the word is “soma” which just means body, after all. I would sometimes suggest to patients who abrupt onset of medically unexplained neurologic symptoms, especially those which appeared to be temporally linked to a stressful event (formerly conversion disorder and now FND), I would suggest that the problem would eventually resolve on its own. I couldn’t make up billing codes and I couldn’t please everybody. I discussed cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), since it was the most well-validated psychotherapy in this context at the time. Many patients were not interested in coming to our clinic for therapy, could not travel the long distance, but accepted a handout about CBT which contained a weblink for FND.

Some patients with FAS are accused of faking the speech problem, but they are not. Any psychiatric consultant who has years of experience will tell you that it’s not accurate to say there aren’t any patients who fake medical and mental illness. There are those who have a rare and controversial problem called Factitious Disorder imposed on self. They fake medical and mental illness in themselves and lie about it to health care professionals. There are others who victimize children and dependent adults by manufacturing illness in them, lie about that to health care professionals and that’s called Factitious Disorder imposed on another. The motivation for this behavior is complex and not well understood. This used to be called Munchausen’s Syndrome or Munchausen’s Syndrome by proxy. Furthermore, there are those who malinger, which is feigning illness for secondary gain, such as avoiding jail or getting disability. Malingering is not a psychiatric diagnosis per se. Both Factitious Disorder and malingering are frequently associated with personality disorders.

That said, anyone exhibiting FAS should get a thorough neurologic workup including but not limited to brain imaging and neuropsychological testing. One of the most interesting early cases involved a Norwegian woman who was hit by shrapnel by German bombers during World War II. She suffered severe left hemisphere brain injury (where the speech control center is located in most people) and began to speak with a German-like accent, which led to her being ostracized in her community.

Another fascinating fact is that sometimes FAS patients can correct or at least modify the speech problem simply by singing or by thinking about what they’re going to say before saying it. In some persons, FAS might resolve spontaneously without specific intervention in weeks or months. Speech therapy is often recommended. For those who exhibit FAS in the context of a mental illness like schizophrenia or depression, exacerbations of which can sometimes be linked to FAS, focused psychiatric treatment should be offered.

You can learn more about FAS and FND at the National Neuroscience Curriculum Initiative (NNCI) website. Registration is free and all you need is a login username and password to access many interesting and informative educational modules.

Selected References:

McWhirter L, Miller N, Campbell C, et al Understanding foreign accent syndrome. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 2019;90:1265-1269.

Keulen S, Verhoeven J, De Witte E, De Page L, Bastiaanse R, Mariën P. Foreign Accent Syndrome As a Psychogenic Disorder: A Review. Front Hum Neurosci. 2016; 10:168. Published 2016 Apr 27. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2016.00168

Indrit Bègue, Caitlin Adams, Jon Stone, David L. Perez, Structural alterations in functional neurological disorder and related conditions: a software and hardware problem? NeuroImage: Clinical,Volume 22, 2019,101798, ISSN 2213-1582, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nicl.2019.101798. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213158219301482)

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