New hope for stroke

19 October 2016

Posted by: John Meredith

Category: Research & medical benefits

New hope for stroke

In what could be a significant breakthrough for stroke patients, researchers at Newcastle University have developed a smartphone-sized device with the potential to restore movement to partially paralysed hands.

The device works by stimulating the brain to re-wire itself, sending signals around the damage caused by the stroke to use alternative neural pathways instead. Wires from the small device are attached to the patient’s arm by pads. These pads deliver tiny pain-free electric shocks to the arm and hand muscles at regular intervals while at the same time – and this is what makes this treatment so radically new – emitting a synchronised sound, an audible click.

The surprising effect of adding sound to an electric shock appears to be the stimulation of a faster and much more powerful response from the brain. The effect was first noticed and then developed during work with macaque monkeys. Newcastle University’s Professor Stuart Baker, lead author of the paper recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience emphasised the importance of this careful animal research in making their breakthrough:

‘We would never have thought of using audible clicks unless we had the recordings from primates to show us that this might work. Furthermore, it is our earlier work in primates which shows that the connections we are changing are definitely involved in stroke recovery.’

The therapy builds on earlier ‘dual stimulus’ research, but where previous studies relied on expensive and bulky equipment the new approach works with small, lightweight and inexpensive  technologies which make the device fully portable – an important practical consideration when you have to be attached to it for up to four hours a day.

Many stroke victims will recover a certain amount of hand movement naturally as the brain works out how to get around the damage caused by the attack, but improvement in extensor strength – opening rather than clenching the fingers – proved elusive until Professor Baker’s team observed the effect of the combined sound plus electrical stimulus on macaques.

The new treatment has already been shown to dramatically improve the ability of patients to open their hands and extend their fingers in laboratory trials, with more than half of test subjects responding well. Now, a large scale clinical trial in collaboration with the Institute of Neurosciences in Kolkata, India, will test those results and take the research to the next level.

If the results of the trial are positive, it will mean a transformation in the lives of millions of people suffering from stroke across the world every year.  And that could just be the start as investigation into sound stimulus in brain recovery develops and new avenues begin to open. All possible thanks to humane animal research with macaques.

REFERENCE: Spike-timing Dependent Plasticity in the Long Latency Stretch Reflex Following Paired Stimulation from a Wearable Electronic Device. KH.M. Riashad Foysal, Felipe de Carvalho, Stuart N. Baker.

Journal of Neuroscience. Doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1414-16.2016


Read the original press release here.