London: Researchers have developed a new technique that could allow stroke patients regain the use of their arms by encouraging the brain to form new and stronger neural connections.
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), which aims to encourage the growth of new neural connections in the brain, has helped patients in Glasgow improve arm function by a greater degree than standard physiotherapy alone.
The new technique helped patients regain the use of their arms and has shown promising results in a small-scale trial.
"There are no proven treatments beyond general rehabilitation strategies to improve hand function after stroke. A few methods may benefit the shoulder-elbow function, but nothing yet has worked to improve hand function," said Jesse Dawson, who led the trial efforts, of the Institute of Cardiovascular & Medical Sciences at the University of Glasgow.
"Vagus nerve stimulation has been suggested as a way of utilising neuroplasticity in the brain to drive the growth of new neural connections related to a specific body movement," Dawson said.
A stroke occurs as a result of a loss of blood supply to a part of the brain, leading to tissue death and loss of functions controlled by the affected brain area.
"We need to do larger trials to confirm our findings and determine if the widespread adoption of this technique could benefit post-stroke patients with upper limb deficits. These initial results are certainly encouraging and warrant further investigation," Dawson said.
The two-year trial, which recruited 20 patients in Glasgow and Newcastle with long-term arm weakness after their stroke, involved the implantation of a small electrical device into the body.
The idea was to take advantage of neuroplasticity the natural ability of the brain to form new neural connections.
Pairing the VNS with traditional rehabilitation encourages the brain to form new, stronger neural connections.
The study recruited volunteers who had suffered ischaemic stroke at least six months earlier with moderately severe arm problems.
The patients were split into two groups, one group receiving intensive physiotherapy alone, the other receiving physiotherapy paired with VNS.
The scores of VNS treated patients were six points higher than those who did not receive it besides their physiotherapy.
The trial was run in partnership with Texas-based biomedical company MicroTransponder, which developed the Vivistim device.