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What happened to news reporter Serene Branson?

A video of a news reporter suffering a complex Migraine resembling stroke has gone viral. See the video: Serene Branson’s Complex Migraine was not a stroke Here are the facts every Migraineur and their family should know:

Complex Migraine is a descriptive term used to describe a Migraine aura that resembles a stroke.

When the (electrical) spreading cortical depression of Migraine aura reaches the centers of the brain responsible for language, Aphasia can be the result.

Aphasia is a neurological deficit that results in the inability to process language correctly, either given or received, or sometimes both. This language may be in the form of numbers or words. It may be written, heard or spoken.

When this inability to process language goes away, it is called Transient Aphasia. When the inability to process language does not go away, it is called Aphasia. Someone who is suffering any attack of aphasia is called Aphasic.

Transient aphasia can be a part of Migraine aura that mimics stroke. Telling the difference between this type of aura and a stroke or Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA) should only be done by a doctor or neurologist.

Migraine auras are frightening enough when they happen and you know what they are. When Migraine auras happen and something is unknown, new or different, they can be reason for anxiety. Migrainous stroke, while rare, is a scary possibility that must always be ruled out by your doctor. This is one reason why Migraine advocates and doctors tell Migraineurs that if their Migraine attack changes, becomes unusually severe (the worst headache of your life), or lasts longer than 3 days, the patient should consider it a signal to get to their doctor or emergency room.

Migraine auras can affect any of the senses — sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. Even your sense of balance and information about the world around you can become distorted (Alice in Wonderland Syndrome). We have already talked about aura, including aphasic aura in this post: What is Aura?

There are two main areas in the brain responsible for reading, writing, speaking, understanding, and calculations (math). Each area is responsible for a different part of our ability to use this language. Most specifically, difficulties in language can range from trouble word finding, to the complete inability to communicate or understand any kind of language or communication. Each attack of transient aphasia can be different than the next, adding to its ability to frighten and frustrate us.

Sadly, there are those who think what happened to Serene Branson is amusing fodder for jokes. The symptoms of a stroke should never, ever be considered a joking matter, and those that choose to laugh at or persecute her for her medical condition should be ashamed of themselves.

Those readers who have checked out my profile will already know why I am passionate about this – I have frequently suffered the type of Migraine aura Ms. Branson suffered on air.

What does it feel like to be aphasic?

When it happens, it’s frightening. You can watch the video of Serene and see the confusion and fright in her eyes and on her face. Like most of us who suffer transient aphasia, she tries desperately to cover it up. This is very real.

For me, it is the most frustrating, humiliating thing I have ever had happen to me, and it has reduced me on more than one occasion to a weeping baby in front of my family, friends and strangers. It’s happened to me on the phone multiple times, in public many times. During meetings with clients. In front of friends and family. The worst is when it happens in front of strangers, because at first they think it’s funny — that it’s some kind of joke, just like what happened to Serene. They laugh and try to get me to be serious, and sometimes they look at me like I’m an idiot. In my head my brain is screaming at them to understand that something is horribly wrong. On the outside, I just melt.

Aphasia cost me my job as an Emergency Dispatcher. My job was speaking and listening — communicating — to keep my officers and the public safe. When I stopped being able to reliably communicate, I had to stop being the person on the phone/radio. I hope Ms Branson doesn’t have the same experience, but I wonder how many of those laughing at her have thought about the prospect she too could lose her job.

When I’m aphasic, I am trapped inside my body. I am reduced to feeling like a child who bursts into tears in frustration and despair. The need to express oneself is primal — a basic human function necessary to our survival.

Stay tuned for more posts about aphasia, stroke and Migraine…

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Suki G.
    6 years ago

    Hi Ellen- darn- I tried to access the video of Serene and youtube no longer has it due to copyright by CBS- did you download it? (or maybe Serene prefers not to have it circulate any longer). I just found it useful for educating folks.

  • Ellen Schnakenberg author
    6 years ago

    Hi free-and-clear – Here is another version of the video which clearly shows her aphasia. Unfortunately, she was seeing a neurologist and not a Migraine specialist, so the condition was accidentally called a *complex Migraine*, but we here know that this old term’s diagnosis is actually Migraine with aura 🙂

    Happy viewing!


  • Kay Unsworth
    8 years ago

    This happened to me when I was in labour. I woke up with a groggy headache, was partially blind in one eye with what looked like sunspots and when I went to tell my partner I was in labour the words wouldn’t come out right. I had in my head ‘I need to go to hospital’ but all that would come out was me repeating where where where where over and over. I panicked and tried to get myself together by talking to myself in the mirror, the words were still jumbled up all I could do was point to the car and my partner took me to hospital. By the time I got there I was fine and its only now I realise what it was. Doctors were baffled at the time.

  • Heather Sargent
    8 years ago

    How does one view the video or a similar one since CBS has blocked the video due to copyright claims?

  • Tori Webb Woods
    8 years ago

    this has happened to me as well with some of my auras…… is very scary…

  • Helen Williams Lopez
    8 years ago

    I frequently have aphasia with migraines. Sometimes I cannot understand what people are saying and sometimes I speak gibberish. I have been taken to an ER by ambulance twice because I could not communicate that I was just getting a migraine! I wonder if I should wera a Medic-Alert bracelet? I am 58 – have had migraines with aura since 14. You never get used to them!

  • Karen Ferguson Thomason
    8 years ago

    I would recommend it. It would probably make the correct diagnosis and treatment faster.

  • Ben Jack
    8 years ago

    Ive had migraines like these since about 15 I’m 26 now and am trying to get into the marine corps I want infantry Ive let these migraines keep me in tow and in question for years , I’m tired of hiding in fear , their going to be hear for life either we find a way to overcome them or let them keep us in bondage , to the girl that crys you shouldant be embrassed you didant ask for this stay posative.

  • Maureen
    8 years ago

    I am so sorry you suffer from this. I have migraines and so far nothing like this. Just some other things that I think maybe caused from them and now have this episode to spur my Dr to look into it for me.

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