14 July 2010

Stroke me, baby! Touching body-parts can prevent stroke, suggests study

by Kate Melville

The most common type of stroke can be completely prevented in rats by stimulating a single whisker; say researchers from the University of California, Irvine (UCI). They further suggest that because we have sensitive body parts wired to the same area of the brain as rodents' fine-tuned whiskers, stimulation of the fingers, lips or face could all have a similar effect in humans.

UCI researcher Ron Frostig cautions that the research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is only a first step, albeit an important one. "This is just the beginning of the whole story," he says, "with the potential for maybe doing things before a victim even reaches the emergency room."

A stroke usually happens when a main artery bringing oxygen and nutrients to the brain either ruptures or is blocked by a clot, causing partial brain death. The key to preventing strokes in rats whose main cerebral artery has been obstructed, the researchers found, is to stimulate the blood-starved brain area.

Frostig and his co-researchers discovered that mechanically stroking just one whisker for four minutes within the first two hours of the blockage caused the blood to quickly flow to other arteries - like cars exiting a gridlocked freeway to find detours.

But unlike freeway off-ramps, which can quickly clog, the alternate arteries expanded beyond their normal size, opening wide to allow critical blood flow to the brain. Astonishingly, the technique was 100 percent effective in preventing strokes in rats with arterial obstruction. University of California (San Diego) neuroscientist David Kleinfeld, who has also studied brain structure and strokes, calls the results "unexpected and spectacular."

Scientists have struggled for years to find ways of preventing strokes or minimizing their effects, which include slurred speech, paralysis and brain damage. People believed to be suffering a stroke are currently told to lie still and stay calm in a quiet environment but Frostig says a good massage, listening to a song or otherwise stimulating the right nerve endings might work better.

However, Kleinfeld cautions that the rodent findings might not be relevant to humans. But with such clear evidence that strokes in rats were prevented, he says, "it would be criminal not to try" controlled human studies. To that end, the UCI team are hoping to locate physicians or emergency medical technicians willing to try the technique on patients with early stroke symptoms.

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Source: University of California Irvine
Photo illustration courtesy Christopher Lay and Cynthia Chen-Bee