It turns out that after two days of extensive testing, Serene Branson’s aphasia was diagnoses as a complex migraine. What she has stated in an interview is that she had not been feeling well with a sense of tiredness and the onset of a headache before the speech disturbance began. That was a big clue. Never-the-less a full work-up needed to be done, including MRI of the brain, MRA (MR angiography, looking at the blood vessels) of the neck and the brain, EKG and echocardiogram as well as blood tests. When it was found that all of these tests were normal than the symptoms could be utilized to make the final diagnosis.
So how could a migraine cause the symptome of speech dysfunction? First, the phenomenon of migraines needs to be understood. Fundamentaly, the arteries in the brain constrict in the first phase (prodromal phase) and then dilated. Though the constriction may cause some headache, the dilation phase is generally what causes the severe headache. When the blood vessels dilate, there can be a reduction in blood flow to the area of the brain most affected. Depending on which area is affected, symptoms related to that area develop. This is referred to as an aura. If it occurs in the occipital area which has to do with vision, then the aura will included symptoms such as seeing spots, flashing lights, zigzags or moving lines, like blades of a fan.
This usually lasts minutes but can last up to almost an hour. If it affects the prefrontal gyrus which controls movement then there may be problems with movement of a limb or with the face. When it effects Broca’s area in the base of the posterior frontal lobe, then, though the individual may know what they want to say, they can not get it out coherently. This is exactly what happened with Serene Branson. Many other symptoms may also occur such as tingling, confusion, even hallucinations. Following this aura, the migraine headache usually ensues but it may not always occur so when it is only the aura which is the significant symptom, it may be difficult to diagnose until other causes of the neurologic dysfunction are excluded. Rarely, the vasospasm and reduction in bloodflow can be so severe that a stroke can occur. When auras occur regularly and can be temporarily disabling then medication can be used such as inderal to limit these troubling events.
Those who suffer from these symptoms should meet with a neurologist to find the right treatment including avoiding triggers such as certain foods or even odors or scents.