What Is Wernicke's Area?

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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 it plays a part in speech comprehension. 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.

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.

Where is Wernicke's area located?

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.

Broca's Area

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.

Broca's area is a region of the brain in the frontal lobe involved in speech production.  It is responsible for the planning and production of speech. It helps coordinate the muscles involved in speech and plays a role in understanding language. Damage to Broca's area can result in difficulty speaking clearly, or even in complete inability to speak.

Wernicke's Area

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.

Recap

Wernicke's area and Broca's area are two areas of the brain that play a part in language. Broca's area is associated with language production, while Wernicke's area is associated with language comprehension.

Wernicke's Area Function

The specific functions of Wernicke's area are still not fully understood, but it is believed that this brain region plays an important role in language.

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

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

Wernicke's area supports phonologic retrieval, an essential part of speech production. This allows the mental representation of phonemes, which are then articulated in their temporal order. This is a necessary component of speech production and plays a role in being able to read aloud, repeat speech, and retrieve words.

Not only that, research 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 brain regions. Instead, Wernicke's area appears to be part of a larger brain network that is responsible for language production and comprehension.

Wernicke's Aphasia

Language aphasia can result when Wernicke’s area is damaged by trauma or disease. Aphasia is an impairment of language that affects an individual's ability to comprehend and produce spoken and written communication.

Wernicke's aphasia is a language disorder that impacts language comprehension and the production of meaningful language due to damage to Wernicke's area of the brain. This condition is sometimes referred to as fluent aphasia, sensory aphasia, or receptive aphasia.

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 these individuals' sentences.

Symptoms of Wernicke's Aphasia

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.

A Word From Verywell

Researchers are still working to understand the functions of Wernicke's area, but it is clear that this region of the brain is essential in the comprehension of language. When this area of the brain is damaged, often through stroke or trauma, people may have problems understanding and producing meaningful language.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Wright, A. Chapter 8: higher cortical functions: language. Neuroscience Online. University of Texas Health Science Center.

  4. Javed K, Reddy V, M Das J, et al. Neuroanatomy, Wernicke Area. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.

  5. Pillay, SB, Stengel, BC, Humphries, C, Book, DS, and Binder, JR. Cerebral localization of impaired phonological retrieval during rhyme judgment. Ann Neurol. 2014;76(5):738-46. doi: 10.1002/ana.24266

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  8. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). Aphasia.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.