Wernicke's Area Location and Function

Wernicke's area is the region of the brain that is important for language development. It is located in the temporal lobe on the left side of the brain and is responsible for the comprehension of speech, while Broca's area is related to the production of speech. Language development or usage can be seriously impaired by damage to Wernicke's area of the brain.

When this area of the brain is damaged, a disorder known as Wernicke's aphasia can result, with the person being able to speak in phrases that sound fluent yet lack meaning.

Location

While the location of Wernicke's area is sometimes displayed visually as being in the left cerebral hemisphere near a large groove known as the lateral sulcus, the exact location of this region is still debated.

Wernicke's area is usually thought to be located in the back part of the temporal lobe, although the exact location can vary. It is most frequently found in the left hemisphere of the brain, but not always.

How Wernicke’s Area Was Discovered

Early neuroscientists were interested in discovering where certain abilities were localized in the brain. This localization of brain function suggests that certain abilities, such as producing and understanding language, are controlled by certain parts of the brain.

One of the pioneers of this research was a French neurologist named Paul Broca. During the early 1870s, Paul Broca discovered a region of the brain associated with the production of spoken language. He found that damage to this area resulted in problems producing language.

Broca described how one patient known as Leborgne could understand language although he could not speak aside from isolated words and a few other utterances. When Leborgne died, Broca conducted a postmortem exam on the man's brain and found a lesion in an area of the frontal lobe. This area of the brain is now referred to as Broca's area and is associated with the production of speech.

About 10 years later, a neurologist named Carl Wernicke identified a similar type of problem in which patients were able to speak but were not able to actually comprehend language. Examining the brains of patients suffering from this language problem revealed lesions at a junction of the parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes.

This region of the brain is now known as Wernicke's area and is associated with the understanding of spoken and written language.

Wernicke's Aphasia

When Wernicke’s area is damaged by trauma or disease, a language aphasia can result. An aphasia is an impairment of language that affects an individual's ability to comprehend and produce both spoken and written communication. This type of aphasia is known as Wernicke's aphasia but is also sometimes referred to as fluent aphasia, sensory aphasia, or receptive aphasia.

Wernicke's aphasia is a language disorder that impacts language comprehension and the production of meaningful language due to damage to the Wernicke's area of the brain.

According to the National Aphasia Association, people with Wernicke's aphasia can frequently produce speech that sounds normal and grammatically correct. The actual content of this speech makes little sense. Non-existent and irrelevant words are often included in the sentences that these individuals produce.

Symptoms of Wernicke's aphasia include:

  • Making up meaningless words
  • Producing sentences that do not make sense
  • Speaking in a way that sounds normal but lacks meaning
  • Difficulty repeating words or phrases 
  • Being unaware of problems with speech

Individuals with Wernicke's aphasia have difficulty understanding spoken language but are able to produce sounds, phrases, and word sequences. While these utterances have the same rhythm as normal speech, they are not a language because no information is conveyed. This type of aphasia affects both spoken and written language.

In order to better understand how damage to Wernicke’s area affects language, it might be helpful to view a video clip of an individual with Wernicke’s aphasia.

The National Aphasia Association estimates that around 25—40% of people who have had a stroke also experience some type of aphasia.

Strokes are one of the most common causes, but Wernicke's aphasia can also be the result of traumatic brain injury, neurological disorders, brain tumors, and brain infections.

Modern Views

It was originally believed that Wernicke's area was responsible for making meaningful speech, while Broca's area was believed to be responsible for actually turning speech into comprehensible vocalizations. 

Today, researchers understand that language comprehension and production is a complex process that involves a network of different regions of the brain. For example, studies suggest that Wernicke's area plays a role in the comprehension of meaningful speech as well as a part in speech production itself. 

Not only that, evidence suggests that damage to Wernicke's area of the brain does not always result in problems with language comprehension. Based on such evidence, it is clear that language involves more than just one or two different regions of the brain.

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