Stroke victims could possibly recover faster through a method used to stimulate the brain’s ability to heal itself. Scientists are studying how electrical stimulation can help regrow neural connections… and treat other conditions too.
In 10 seconds? The current and limited rehabilitation methods after a stroke can be complemented in the future with electrical brain stimulation. Research shows this method can create new ‘paths’ that help regain lost skills. (Read the science)
Wow, what’s this magic ability? It’s called ‘neuroplasticity’. You probably know that signals travel on superfast routes between our brains’ neurons enabling us to think, learn and act. But these pathways can get damaged, for example after a stroke. “No problem”, says the brain in many cases, “I just create a new route for the signals”. This is neuroplasticity. (Read a new paper on how neuroplasticity helps recovery after stroke)
But why ‘zap’ the brain with electrical stimulation? Well, because research says damaged neural connections can be regenerated via this method. Currently, in the case of a stroke (that can lead to paralysis or loss of speech, for example), the therapy is limited, long and hard. It is critical to perform endovascular treatment within 4 hours (clearing out blood clots from brain blood vessels using tiny tubes). After this, the only way is lengthy physical rehabilitation, with no guaranteed outcome. (Read about possible post-stroke treatments)
But how can electrical stimulation help? Electrical stimulation (ES) of the brain was introduced more than 50 years ago for pain management and recently has been studied for inducing neuroplasticity to treat conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. Researchers are investigating if they can use ES to manage neural damage after a stroke, but there are still big knowledge gaps and no verified method. (Find out more)
So, what is being done? My research focuses on addressing these knowledge gaps to use ES for recovering the neural function and induce neural plasticity after a stroke. To test this treatment, I am developing a miniaturized electro-bioreactor. Its is a device that can trigger, maintain and direct cell growth and tissue development, and in this case neuron development. (Find out more)
How it is done? It starts with simulating the method in a computational testing model. Then I apply the desired voltage and current to stimulate the neurons set up to display stroke-damage that I cultured in the bioreactor. I study if the method improves the development of axonal branches (enhancing connectivity between brain regions) and also the associated biophysical and biological mechanisms. (Read the paper)
Which are what? For example, the bioelectrical fields that are essential in important biological processes, such as cell division, cell migration, wound healing and organ development. These fields are generated by the flow of ions through our cell membranes. External ES can open and or close ‘ion channels’, thus changing the concentration of certain ions inside the cells. The resulting reactions can modify the behaviour of the cells, leading to cell migration and the growth of axons in the case of neurons. (Read more).
Can it be used in anything else than stroke? Yes! Of course, if ES can control cell behaviour and biological processes, it can be applied in the treatment of many diseases. For instance, if we find a way to use ES to increase the cell division and migration, we will be able to manage the large tissue defects that won’t heal naturally (such as non-healing skin, bone, and nerve wounds). This tool, if it is well-defined and understood, could be a very powerful method for regenerating tissues. (More on how ES can aid bone repair)
How does the brain regenerate itself?
So, neuroplasticity is the process that makes the brain find new paths, when parts of it are damaged, for example by stroke. There is a continuous generation of new neurons in certain brain regions - this is called neurogenesis.
As we learn new skills and have new experiences, new synapses, i.e. neural connections develop. This is not just about mechanical skills: we can also learn to manage and overcome depression, addictions and other issues, and neuroplasticity plays its part.
Repetition and practice strengthens our neural connections, thus making those synapses stronger.
In the meantime, some synapses become weaker - these are connections in the brain that aren’t used. But beware! Stronger neural connections are not always good. Just as we can learn ‘good’ things, we can learn ‘bad’ things too developing bad habits or negative thoughts.