DOCTORS from a Scottish university are to undertake the world’s first trial to help stroke victims beat disability by helping “rewire” their brains.
Researchers at the University of Glasgow are hoping victims of stroke will overcome physical disabilities by forming new neural connections.
Doctors and scientists from the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences will carry out the unique human trial of vagus nerve stimulation. The vagus nerve, found in the neck, carries incoming information from the nervous system to the brain and also transmits information which governs a range of reflex responses.
The study, to be carried out at the Western Infirmary in Glasgow, will recruit 20 patients who suffered a stroke about six months ago and who have been left with poor arm function as a result. Each participant will receive three one-hour sessions of intensive physiotherapy each week for six weeks to help improve their arm function.
Half of the group will also receive an implanted Vivistim device, a vagus nerve stimulator, which will connect to the nerve. When they are receiving physiotherapy to help improve their arm, the device will stimulate the nerve.
It is hoped that this will stimulate release of the brain’s own chemicals, called neuro-transmitters, which will help the brain form new neural connections which might improve participants’ ability to use their arm.
Strokes occur when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off and causes damage to brain cells, or makes them die. This can result in the loss of brain tissue and negatively affect various bodily functions from speech to movement, depending on the location of the stroke.
Around 13,000 people have a stroke each year in Scotland. More than 3,000 of those affected will be under 65.
There are also about 112,000 stroke survivors north of the Border, half of whom have a permanent or long-term disability.
Lead researcher Dr Jesse Dawson, a stroke specialist and clinical senior lecturer in medicine, said: “When the brain is damaged by stroke, important neural connections that control different parts of the body can be damaged which impairs function.
“Evidence from animal studies suggests that vagus nerve stimulation could cause the release of neurotransmitters which help facilitate neural plasticity and help people relearn how to use their arms after stroke, particularly if stimulation is paired with specific tasks.
“A slightly different type of vagus nerve stimulation is already successfully used to manage conditions such as depression and epilepsy.
“It remains to be seen how much we can improve function, but if we can help people perform even small actions again, like being able to hold a cup of tea, it would greatly improve their quality of life.”