Studies show how speaking French could significantly reduce symptoms of Benign Essential Blepharospasm

A fascinating new study published in the latest edition of Movements Disorders (Vol.00 No.00, 2016) presents two patient case studies that demonstrate how speaking French as a second language can significantly reduce the symptoms of a life-limiting eye condition, Benign Essential Blepharospasm (BEB). The novel paper, led by Mr Daniel Ezra, consultant specialist ophthalmic surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital and his research colleagues at University College London explores this phenomenon for the first time and presents a number of hypotheses.

BEB is a focal dystonia causing involuntary contractions of the upper eye lid and upper face. It is an incurable chronic condition, the causes of which are not known, that has a devastating impact on patient’s quality of life.

One of the patients in the study was Chris Clarke, a 70 year-old from Hertfordshire, who suffers from severe and rapid BEB.

Having spoken French throughout her career, Chris noticed whilst talking to a colleague that her symptoms eased considerably when speaking in this second language, rather than her native English. Chris was getting hardy any response to conventional therapy for BEB (botox) or oral medications, and underwent eyelid surgery. Whilst Chris has seen a significant improvement following surgery, and her confidence in her ability to go out and about independently has been restored, she will need to continue botox treatment every 3-4 months.

The study provides a number of possible explanations for the language modulation of the condition including that it may relate to:

  • The innate differences in the way that learned and acquired (native) languages are stored in the memory. Acquired language is generally stored in procedural memory, with native languages – in this case French - stored in declarative memory and process by separate areas of the brain. This neurological discrepancy is a spectacle previously described in cases of psychosis
  • The influence of “sensory tricks” which can moderate movement disorders, with only the learned language providing the right stimuli to enable this change in BEB
  • The difference in the attentional control required to speak a native versus a learned language, which when speaking the latter might result in cognitive resources being “re-directed” or “distracted” from the abnormal dystonic drive, so resulting in reduced symptoms.

Mr Daniel Ezra, consultant specialist ophthalmic surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital, comments:

To the best of our knowledge, this paper is the first time that the way that language can change a movement disorder such as benign essential blepharospasm (BEB) has been observed. This is clearly a small study, but one that is certainly significant in its findings and the potential it offers us to better understand and hopefully treat the condition in the future. Having had first-hand experience of the devastating effects that the symptoms of BEB can have for patients, I am committed to further research in this area.

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