There are 525,949 minutes in a year. And every year, there are about 800,000 strokes in the United States – so, one stroke every 40 seconds. Aside from the infusion, within three or four hours of the stroke, of a costly biological substance called tissue plasminogen activator (whose benefit is less-than-perfectly established), no drugs have been shown to be effective in treating America’s largest single cause of neurologic disability and the world’s second-leading cause of death. (Even the workhorse post-stroke treatment, physical therapy, is far from a panacea.)
But a new study, led by Stanford neurosurgery pioneer Gary Steinberg and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may presage a better way to boost stroke recovery. In the study, Steinberg and his colleagues used a cutting-edge technology to directly stimulate movement-associated areas of the brains of mice that had suffered strokes.
Known as optogenetics – whose champion, Stanford psychiatrist and bioengineer Karl Deisseroth, co-authored the study – the light-driven method lets investigators pinpoint a specific set of nerve cells and stimulate only those cells. 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.
“We wanted to find out whether activating these nerve cells alone can contribute to recovery,” Steinberg told me.
As I wrote in a news release about the study:
By several behavioral … and biochemical measures, the answer two weeks later was a strong yes. On one test of motor coordination, balance and muscular strength, the mice had to walk the length of a horizontal beam rotating on its axis, like a rotisserie spit. Stroke-impaired mice [in which the relevant brain region] was optogenetically stimulated did significantly better in how far they could walk along the beam without falling off and in the speed of their transit, compared with their unstimulated counterparts. The same treatment, applied to mice that had not suffered a stroke but whose brains had been … stimulated just as stroke-affected mice’s brains were, had no effect on either the distance they travelled along the rotating beam before falling off or how fast they walked. This suggests it was stimulation-induced repair of stroke damage, not the stimulation itself, yielding the improved motor ability.
Moreover, levels of some important natural substances called growth factors increased in a number of brain areas in optogenetically stimulated but not unstimulated post-stroke mice. These factors are key to a number of nerve-cell repair processes. Interestingly, some of the increases occurred not only where stimulation took place but in equivalent areas on the opposite side of the brain, consistent with the idea that when we lose function on one side of the brain, the unaffected hemisphere can step in to help restore some of that lost function.
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.
Previously: Brain sponge: Stroke treatment may extend time to prevent brain damage, BE FAST: Learn to recognize the signs of stroke and Light-switch seizure control? In a bright new study, researchers show how
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