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Rare Neurological Disorder Draws Attention

Recent news stories about a migraineur from Great Britian have illuminated a rare neurological disorder, which the woman developed in the midst of a migraine attack.

Sarah Colwill, featured in a BBC documentary that aired in September, was hospitalized with a severe migraine in 2010 and woke sounding as though she had suddenly developed a Chinese accent. In addition to sounding differently, she also struggles with loss of vocabulary and pain while writing. Doctors diagnosed her with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), which has afflicted fewer than 150 people since it was first named during the 1940s.

Typically, FAS is caused by a stroke or head injury that damages the left side of the brain, specifically areas that control language, pitch and speech patterns. Those with FAS might sound as though they have suddenly developed an accent because of the changes in their speech, which the damage caused. The speech changes include lengthening of syllables, differences in timing and trouble pronouncing consonant clusters.

Treatment includes intensive speech therapy and counseling. Those it affects sometimes experience the speech difficulties for months; for others, FAS is a permanent condition.

The experience can be alienating for FAS sufferers, and it has been difficult for Colwill. She has benefitted from the friendship of a fellow British FAS sufferer, who now sounds a bit French after developing FAS, also during a migraine attack.

Colwill experiences about 10 migraine attacks per month, and has not yet found anything that eliminates them completely.

Arthur Elkind, MD, President of the National Headache Foundation, noted that FAS is not the only unusual disorder that can occur because of migraine, particularly migraine with aura. Physicians who treat such patients often ask them to describe attacks that are unusual or frequently recur.  Occasionally, the patients relate very unusual symptoms, including déjà vu and auditory and visual hallucinations. The abbess Hildegard of Bingen—a 12th Century composer, poet and prophet—may have been afflicted with unusual migraine symptoms that are depicted in the tapestries and music she created. Dr. Elkind added that Colwill may have had a similar type of attack with rare but different symptoms affecting speech areas of the brain.  Most often, he said, this type of unusual symptomatology resolves with the acute attack, but may persist after the headache subsides.

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