Brain stimulation helps recover from stroke

Brain stimulation helps recover from stroke
Brain stimulation helps recover from stroke

Brain stimulation helps with stroke

Stroke is the No. 4 cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the United States, according to the American Stroke Association. The disease affects the arteries leading to and within the brain which can affect memory, movement and the ability to communicate. Aside from the infusion, within three or four hours of the stroke, of a costly biological substance, no drugs have been shown to be effective in treating stroke. But a new study may presage a better way to boost stroke recovery by using a cutting-edge technology to directly stimulate movement-associated areas of the brains of mice that had suffered strokes.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, on August 18th, 2014 showed firing beams of light into the brains of mice led to the animals moving further and faster than those without the therapy.

A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot or bursts (or ruptures). When that happens, part of the brain cannot get the blood (and oxygen) it needs, so it and brain cells die. The brain is an extremely complex organ that controls various body functions.  If a stroke occurs and blood flow can’t reach the region that controls a particular body function, that part of the body will not work as it should.

The team at Stanford University School of Medicine investigated whether brain stimulation aided recovery in mice experiments.

They used a cutting-edge technology to pinpoint a specific set of nerve cells and stimulate only those cells. Known as optogenetics, the light-driven method lets investigators stimulate just the neurons in the motor cortex – the part of the brain responsible for voluntary movements – following a stroke. In contrast, the electrode-based brain stimulation devices now increasingly used for relieving symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and chronic pain also stimulate the cells’ near neighbors.

After seven days of stimulation, mice were able to walk further down a rotating rod than mice which had not had brain stimulation. After 10 days they were also moving faster.

The researchers believe the stimulation is affecting how the wiring of the brain changes after a stroke. They detected higher levels of chemicals linked to the formation of new connections between brain cells.

Lead researcher Professor Gary Steinberg said it was a struggle to give people drugs to protect brain cells in time as the “time window is very short”. He added “The advantage of treating during the recovery period is it’s longer, potentially it could be years, so it has huge potential. I predict that the kind of study we’re doing will help to push stimulation as a therapy for stroke and you can image how import that would be for the millions of stroke patients with disability.”

Translating these findings into human trials will mean not just brain surgery, but also gene therapy in order to introduce a critical light-sensitive protein into the targeted brain cells. Steinberg notes, though, that trials of gene therapy for other neurological disorders have already been conducted.

Steinberg said his lab is following up to determine whether the improvement is sustained in the long term. “We’re also looking to see if optogenetically stimulating other brain regions after a stroke might be equally or more effective,” he said. “The goal is to identify the precise circuits that would be most amenable to interventions in the human brain, post-stroke, so that we can take this approach into clinical trials.”

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