Aug. 9, 2006 — -- Seeing Susan Bowen at home in Alpena, Mich., or at one of many meetings she attends as a community planner gives little indication that anything is unusual about her. When she begins to speak, her strange secret is revealed.
"I go grocery shopping and the clerk will say, 'You're not from around here, are you?'" Bowen said. "Well, yes, as a matter of fact I am."
About four years ago, Bowen began speaking with a strange foreign-sounding accent, and she says she has absolutely no idea why.
"Many doctors have told me, 'There's nothing wrong with you,' but I know there is because this is not normal," she said.
She says the change began one hot night in July.
"I woke up and I had trouble walking," she said. "I had to hang on to the walls to get through my house and my speech was not like this but was a stutter, and I could not say more than a word or two at a time."
At first doctors thought she had a stroke or maybe multiple sclerosis, but tests were inconclusive and the symptoms kept getting stranger. After four or five days of stuttering, Bowen said she began speaking with a sort of European accent.
"I have a friend who calls me the Swiss chick," she said.
Friends joked that maybe she was reverting back to a past life. But doctors said there was nothing physically wrong with her and perhaps the problem was psychological. Bowen insists she wasn't faking the accent.
For Bowen's son, Jacob, having a mother with a strange new voice has been confusing and frightening.
"Just knowing that she can be doing something one day and lose it the next," he said.
Bowen said this strange problem has changed her whole outlook on life.
"I want to do things while I can, while I'm able and with my family," she said. "So we've been traveling and taking trips and doing things like that, and I think that's far more important now to do it while we are able. You never know what you wake up to tomorrow."
Hundreds of miles away in Greenville, S.C., 48-year-old salesman Berley Stabler had some idea what Bowen was going through.
Two years ago, Stabler had a mild stroke. At first he couldn't even talk. When his voice came back, it wasn't exactly his.
"People were just stunned; [they'd] come and visit me in the hospital and they almost wouldn't say anything, and I'd say, it's OK you can say what you think," Stabler said. "And they'd say, 'You sound German, you sound French, you sound Austrian.'... Their mouths would drop open. They'd just be amazed."
Eventually, specialists came up with a possible explanation for what happened to Stabler and Bowen -- a rare disorder called foreign-accent syndrome.
Dr. Julius Fridriksson, who studies how the brain recovers from larger strokes, was fascinated by Stabler's case, and though a bit skeptical he convinced him to come in for testing.
"When he first came down here to the University of South Carolina I was thinking, is this really, you know, something real?" Fridriksson said. "And I can't say that I didn't believe him because his accent was very pronounced, and why would anybody ever come up with this off the top of their head?"
Stabler spent many hours undergoing tests, including having a highly sophisticated MRI scan done on his brain. Fridriksson said he was amazed by the results.
Pointing to a scan, Fridriksson said, "You can see this small white spot. This is the lesion that occurred as a result of the stroke. It just so happens the lesion hit a crucial part of that brain-speech network. And what it basically does is that it affects our ability to monitor speech."
In some ways, Stabler's was what you might call a textbook case of foreign accent syndrome.
Other cases are not so clear-cut. Jack Ryalls, a professor at the University of Central Florida, believes one of his patients, Julie Diechburg, has foreign-accent syndrome, even though there is no evidence of a brain lesion. She was injured in a terrible car crash and suffers from memory problems and has exhibited accented speech off and on.
Putting a name to her problem has brought Diechburg some comfort. "You don't feel like you are a freak, and you don't think there's no hope for you. That if someone else has it then maybe they can give you the hope that you need to go on," she said.
Ryalls also diagnosed another woman who appeared on "Good Morning America" and the Discovery Channel three years ago.
She not only speaks with a British-sounding accent, she uses British expressions, such as the word "lift" instead of elevator and "mum" instead of mom. Her speech is something Ryalls can't explain. He calls it "atypical."
Back in Michigan, Bowen -- whose accent has unexpectedly come and gone over the past four years -- is still looking for answers and coping day to day with a healthy dose of humor.
"I really just want to know what the heck is going on in my head," she said.
Bowen had her ninth MRI in April. The MRI showed some indication of multiple sclerosis, but was also inconclusive. Bowen says she still has the accent and is still frustrated to have no real answers.
Experts say about half of all foreign-accent syndrome patients never recover.
Those that do recover, like Stabler, do so relatively quickly, within a year or two.
Recently, Dr. Fridriksson believes he discovered why. A brain scan he performed on Stabler, called a functional MRI, showed evidence that his brain was rewiring itself, essentially working overtime to compensate for the damage.
"You can see the different colors. These actually signify increased blood flow to neuron areas. And these areas are now working overtime in Berley's brain," Fridriksson said.
Stabler's case doesn't just help doctors understand foreign-accent syndrome, it reveals information more general information on how the brain works following brain damage.
Deep inside Stabler's brain, there lie a few possible answers to the strange mysteries of the mind, though Stabler also says he's learned a little mystery is not always such a bad thing.
"Probably the funniest thing is, since the accent's gone away a lot of ladies will come up to me and say, 'Oh, it's good to have you back, but I really miss that sexy French accent.'"