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Aphasia experts available to discuss the condition afflicting Bruce Willis

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Bruce Willis’ family announced on Instagram today that Willis — who played leading roles in action movies like the “Die Hard” series — will be stepping away from acting after being diagnosed with aphasia, a condition which causes people to gradually lose their ability to communicate, both verbally and through writing.

Northwestern University School of Communication and Feinberg School of Medicine experts have been studying aphasia and improving quality of life for people living with aphasia, which can occur as a result of stroke or brain injury, or with aging. Though it can be managed with therapy, few people regain their full ability to communicate.

Dr. Borna Bonakdarpour is assistant professor of behavioral neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of medicine and a member of the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease at Feinberg.

Quote from Dr. Bonakdarpour

“Aphasia really needs a spotlight and this gives us an opportunity to talk about it.

“Aphasia is an impairment of language in expression or comprehension that is due to a lesion or disease in the brain. It can be caused by different diseases, the most common cause in the U.S. is stroke, in which people have an acute onset of loss of ability to express or comprehend language. 

“Primary Progression Aphasia (PPA) is usually caused by Alzheimer’s disease or frontal temporal degeneration. These individuals can have trouble expressing themselves like they can after a stroke. Or they may talk very fluently but don’t understand others.

“If you’re wondering how friends and family members can help aphasia patients? Some people don’t get it, so they talk over the patient and then the patient gets sad. They might just process more slowly. It’s important for people around them to understand how to communicate. Speak slowly, give them the time to talk. Sometimes they just want the challenge to come up with the words themselves, so we encourage friends and family to ask them if they want help.”

Aaron Wilkins, an assistant clinical professor and speech pathologist in the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, is available to speak with members of the media interested in learning more about the condition, its treatment and prognosis. He can be reached at

Quote from Professor Wilkins

"Aphasia is a loss of language due to damage to one or more areas of the brain responsible for language. More commonly, aphasia occurs after an event such as stroke where there is a sudden onset of loss of language. More rarely, aphasia can also develop slowly over time and progressively worsen resulting from neurological disease. 

“With the more sudden onset aphasia due to an event such as stroke, speech therapy helps individuals to improve language. In the case of a slow developing, progressively worsening aphasia, speech therapy assists individuals to learn compensations to communicate differently from traditional communication that is slowly being lost."

Cynthia Thompson is the Ralph and Jean Sundin Professor of Communication Sciences at Northwestern in the School of Communication’s Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders. Her research focuses on normal and disordered language and how language recovers in persons with brain damage. She is an expert on aphasia, and can be reached at

Quote from Professor Thompson

"Importantly, aphasia is not an intellectual or mental disorder. People with aphasia are able to perform many functional activities that do not rely on language. However, because language is required for daily tasks such as talking on the phone and conversing with friends, and it is needed in many types of jobs, aphasia often results in social isolation, job loss, and reduced quality of life. For an actor, like Bruce Willis, language is essential; thus having aphasia will unfortunately impact the ability to perform.

"There is treatment for aphasia – that is speech and language therapy – that not only helps people with aphasia improve the ability to communicate, it also impact brain processing. The brain is an organ of plasticity and has the capacity to change throughout the lifespan. Known as experience-based plasticity, the brain forms new pathways that are directly associated with experience – in the case of aphasia: language treatment."

Leora Cherney is Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, jointly appointed at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the School of Communication. She has 40 years of clinical and research experience in the area of adult neurologic communication disorders and is the founder and director of SRAlab’s Center for Aphasia Research and Treatment which offers an Intensive Comprehensive Aphasia Program (ICAP) and weekly aphasia community groups. She can be reached at

Quote from Professor Cherney

"The loss of language that results from aphasia is devastating and affects all aspects of the person’s life. It is important to differentiate between primary progressive aphasia and the other types of aphasias that occur suddenly (e.g., after a stroke).  People with primary progressive aphasia experience worsening language impairment as cognitive deficits begin to emerge and progress; those with sudden onset aphasia can expect to improve their language skills over time and with speech and language therapy. Therefore, there will be differences in the best approaches to treatment and the long term management of these disorders."