Lost though they are in a linguistic wilderness, most patients with expressive aphasia will find speech therapy extremely helpful, declares noted neurologist Oliver Sacks. Still, some 300,000 to 400,000 patients in the U.S. remain trapped in that wilderness.  In a compelling video on Strokes, Language, and Music, Dr. Sacks offers a surprising rescue: music.

Most people with expressive aphasia can sing, he points out, and they “get” not only the melody but the lyrics as well. Dr. Sacks’s first step with these patients is to sing “Happy Birthday” to them; to their amazement, many can sing it back to him. They cannot access language directly, but it is still there, embedded in a song. Melodic Intonation Therapy, in which they initially sing their questions and thoughts in short phrases, can lead them back to speech. (Listen to aphasia patient Harvey Alter’s triumphant address at an awards dinner—a 10-minute, humorous and eloquent talk, which (he reveals at the end) he did not speak, but sang.

This sort of success requires some 70 to 80 hours of intensive music therapy, Dr. Sacks points out—“but to regain language, one would give one’s soul.”


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