A portable device that delivers small electric shocks to stroke survivors while simultaneously playing an audible click into their ears could allow patients to strengthen their brain and spinal connections themselves. Jim Drury reports.
Student Chris Blower suffered a stroke aged 7. He made a good recovery, but losing the major pathway between brain and spinal cord has caused problems with his extensor muscles. SOUNDBITE (English) CHRIS BLOWER, NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY STUDENT AND STROKE SURVIVOR, SAYING: "I'm just going to try and pick up this (mug)......so, I can lift the cup and that's fine but now if I want to release it we're going to be here for a while." Survivors often adapt by using a more primitive neural pathway, but Newcastle University neuroscientists hope to help patients repair the damage. Paired stimuli therapy combines weak electric shocks to the arm with audible clicks delivered by headphone. Similar therapies require bulky machinery and a lab - but this treatment is controlled by patients themselves while they go about their lives. SOUNDBITE (English) STUART BAKER, PROFESSOR OF MOVEMENT NEUROSCIENCE AT NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "Because we can wear the device and take it out of the laboratory environment we can pair for much longer periods of time, and we hope that might lead to stronger and more long-lasting changes in neural connections." Patients' spinal pathways are measured before and after treatment with this device. UPSOT: BANG Their reflex responses help tailor the timing between clicks and shocks. The team's breakthrough came during tests on macaque monkeys. SOUNDBITE (English) STUART BAKER, PROFESSOR OF MOVEMENT NEUROSCIENCE AT NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "What we found out is that there was this parallel pathway operating along the major pathway in primates, which could contribute to recovery and we showed that in primates. And the second thing the primates allowed us to do was to realise that these loud clicks could access that pathway. That was quite counter-intuitive." In tests on healthy humans 60 percent saw their neural pathways strengthened in a matter of hours. UPSOT: BANG SOUNDBITE (English) CHRIS BLOWER, NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY STUDENT AND STROKE SURVIVOR, SAYING: "There are people who are in wheelchairs and don't have as much control as I do and if those people can be helped....then that's fantastic." Trials on stroke patients are planned and researchers think the pain-free treatment could receive fast clinical approval.