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Kaelyn Bujnoch

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Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital neurologist helps Rosenberg woman with rare Foreign Accent Syndrome
Sugar Land - June 14, 2016
A physician at Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital is working to uncover new information about a rare neurological disorder that has impacted fewer than 100 people worldwide since it was first described in 1907.

For Lisa Alamia, 33, the trouble began when she had surgery on her jaw in December 2015 to correct a serious overbite.  The surgery was successful, and Alamia had minimal swelling.  However, when she began to speak, her voice suddenly had a distinct British accent.

“I didn’t notice it at first,” said Alamia.  “But my husband told me I was talking funny.  My surgeon thought it was just a physical result of the surgery and that it would go away as I healed.”

When the accent persisted, however, Alamia’s surgeon suggested she see her primary care physician, who later referred her to board-certified neurologist Toby Yaltho, M.D., with Houston Methodist Sugar Land Neurology Associates. Yaltho diagnosed Alamia with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), which causes patients to suddenly begin speaking with a new, distinct accent.  It is frequently a consequence of head trauma or stroke, but not always. “This is a fascinating and very rare case,” said Yaltho.  Although Yaltho had studied about FAS, he never expected to treat someone suffering from the rare condition. “Most neurologists work their entire careers and never come across FAS,” he said.

Yaltho conducted a complete neurological exam on Alamia, including an MRI scan of her brain to determine if she had suffered a stroke or other injury, and an electroencephalogram (EEG), which is used to detect abnormalities in brain waves that could lead to seizures.

“Everything came back normal,” said Yaltho. “There was no evidence of stroke or other abnormalities.”

Meanwhile, the accent made Alamia extremely self-conscious and kept her from interacting with others. “For a while, whenever I went out in public, I was afraid I would see someone I know and I would have to talk with them,” she said.  “I didn’t want people to laugh or to think I was talking this way on purpose, but Dr. Yaltho has helped me to understand that there is something going on in my brain that is triggering the accent, and that’s made me feel more comfortable.”

Although some people with FAS find that their accent diminishes over time, in some cases it is permanent. There is no known cure.  For Alamia, the next steps involve speech therapy and a functional MRI of the brain, which tracks activity in specific parts of the brain by measuring changes in blood flow.

“The human brain is a complex organ, and we don’t know if we will ever be able to completely understand what causes FAS” said Dr. Yaltho.  “When we have the opportunity to learn more, we have to do all we can. We hope to learn as much as possible to contribute to the understanding of FAS to hopefully help future patients and their physicians.”

A similar FAS case involving oral surgery surfaced in 2011, when a native-born Oregon woman awoke from a routine dental procedure and found that she spoke with an Irish accent.  Like Alamia, over time she learned to handle the questions and comments from both friends and strangers.

“I’ve learned that not everything in life has an answer,” said Alamia, “but the accent doesn’t define who I am.  I’m still the same person I was before surgery; I just talk differently.”

For more information about Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital’s Neuroscience & Spine Center, or to schedule an appointment with Dr. Toby Yaltho, call 281.274.7979. Visit our Facebook page at fb.com/methodistsugarland for the latest news, events and information.