Wernicke's Area in the Brain

Broca's Area, Wernicke's Area
This digital illustration of a head in profile shows the bundle of nerve fibers (green) that connect Broca's area (purple) and Wernicke's area (orange) in human brain. These brain areas are important for speech and language comprehension. Credit: Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

The function of a part of the human brain known as Wernicke's area is to enable us to comprehend written and spoken language. It is located posterior to the primary auditory complex in the left temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain where information processing of all kinds takes place.

Wernicke's area is connected to another brain region involved in language processing known as Broca's area. Located in the lower portion of the left frontal lobe, Broca's area controls motor functions involved with speech production. Together, these two brain areas help us to speak as well as to interpret, process, and understand spoken and written language.

Discovery

German neurologist Carl Wernicke is credited with discovering the function of this brain region in 1873. He did so while observing individuals with damage to the posterior temporal lobe of the brain. He noticed that one of his stroke patients, while able speak and hear, was not able to comprehend what was being said to him. Nor could he understand written words. After the man died, Wernicke studied his brain and discovered a lesion in the rear parietal/temporal region of the left hemisphere of the patient's brain, located close to the auditory region. He concluded that this section had to be responsible for language comprehension.

Function

Wernicke's Area of the brain is responsible for multiple functions. According to various studies, including the 2016 publication "The Role of Wernicke’s Area in Language Comprehension" by Alfredo Ardila, Byron Bernal, and Monica Rosselli, these functions seem to contribute to language understanding by allowing us to interpret the meaning of individual words and using them in their proper context.

Wernicke's Aphasia

A condition called Wernicke's aphasia, or fluent aphasia, in which patients with damage to their temporal lobe region have difficulty comprehending language and communicating ideas, bolsters the thesis that Wernicke's area primarily governs word comprehension. While they are able to speak words and form sentences that are grammatically correct, these patients cannot form sentences that make sense. They may include unrelated words or words that have no meaning in their sentences. These individuals lose the ability to connect words with their appropriate meanings. They are often unaware that what they are saying does not make sense. Processing the symbols that we call words, encoding their meanings into our brains, and then using them in context is what forms the very basis of language comprehension.

A Three-Part Process

Speech and language processing are complex functions that involve several parts of the cerebral cortex. Wernicke's area, Broca's area, and the angular gyrus are three regions vital to language processing and speech. Wernicke's area is connected to Broca's area by a group of nerve fiber bundles called the arcuate fascilicus. While Wernicke's area helps us to understand language, Broca's area helps us to accurately communicate our ideas to others through speech. The angular gyrus, located in the parietal lobe, is a region of the brain that helps us to utilize different types of sensory information to comprehend language.

Sources:

  • National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Aphasia. NIH Pub. No. 97-4257. Updated June 1, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/aphasia.
  • National Aphasia Foundation. (n.d.). Wernicke's aphasia. Retrieved from http://www.aphasia.org/aphasia-resources/wernickes-aphasia/