Re-examining the brain regions crucial for orchestrating speech articulation

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Abstract

A traditional method of localizing brain functions has been to identify shared areas of brain damage in individuals who have a particular deficit. The rationale of this ‘lesion overlap’ approach is straightforward: if the individuals can no longer perform the function, the area of brain damaged in most of these individuals must have been responsible for that function. However, the reciprocal association, i.e. the probability of the lesion causing the deficit, is often not evaluated. In this study, we illustrate potential weaknesses of this approach, by re-examining regions of the brain essential for orchestrating speech articulation. A particularly elegant and widely cited lesion overlap study identified the superior part of the precentral gyrus of the insula (in the anterior insula) as the shared area of damage in chronic stroke patients with ‘apraxia of speech’, a disorder of motor planning and programming of speech. Others have confirmed that patients with apraxia of speech commonly have damage to the anterior insula. However, this reliable association might reflect the vulnerability of the insula to damage following occlusion or narrowing of the middle cerebral artery (which can independently cause apraxia of speech and many other deficits). To evaluate this possibility, we examined the relationship between apraxia of speech and the insula in three unique ways: (i) we determined the probability of the lesion causing the deficit, as well as the deficit being associated with the lesion, by examining speech articulation and advanced MRIs in two consecutive series of patients with acute left hemisphere, non-lacunar stroke, 40 with and 40 without insular damage; (ii) we studied patients at stroke onset to identify the deficit before it resolved in cases of small stroke; and (iii) we identified regions of dysfunctional brain tissue, as well as structural damage. Using this approach, we found no association between apraxia of speech and lesions of the left insula, anterior insula or superior tip of the precentral gyrus of the insula. Instead, in patients with and without insular lesions, apraxia of speech was associated with structural damage or low blood flow in left posterior inferior frontal gyrus. These results illustrate a potential limitation of lesion overlap studies, and illustrate an alternative method for identifying brain–behaviour relationships.

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