A recent study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine earlier this month has demonstrated that an extra boost of electricity to the brain may result in improved upper limb use when combined with occupational therapy sessions following either ischemic or hemorrhagic stroke.

Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) has demonstrated in a small study to optimize the benefits of rehabilitative therapy for upper limb deficits after stroke. Graphic source: http://nwg.glia.mdc-berlin.de

Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS); graphic source: http://nwg.glia.mdc-berlin.de

Twenty-four patients with upper limb impairment due to a stroke that had occurred at least six months previously were randomized to one of two groups. Patients in the treatment group received a small amount of direct electrical current, delivered via an electrode that was placed on the scalp over the motor cortex on the same side as the stroke. The second group of patients still had the electrodes in place, but no electrical current was being delivered. For the first 20 minutes of nine therapy sessions (one session per day, for nine consecutive days) the patients wore these electrodes. Following the 20 minute period, therapy continued as usual.

The idea was to determine if a small electrical stimulus could wake the brain up, so to speak. Neuronal plasticity is the term given to the concept that following a brain injury, surrounding cells can adapt to perform functions previously carried out by the cells that were damaged in order to restore function that may have otherwise been lost. While relatively small (24 patients participated in the study), there was a statistically significant improvement in upper limb movement in the patients receiving direct electrical current when compared to patients who did not receive electrical stimulation.

I always become intrigued (and excited) when options for stroke prevention or recovery that don’t involve more medications, surgical procedures, and/or significant risk to patients produce positive results, and this is such an example. This has the potential to be a sizeable step forward in producing better results with stroke rehabilitation, and larger studies are warranted. Perhaps what is most exciting is that the benefit was still seen three months later, despite patients not having not received electrical current stimulation during that time. This implies that the rehabilitation is effective and long lasting.

For more information about this study, click here.