Zapping the brain while exercising could speed recovery from a stroke

DAEGU, South Korea – Electrical stimulation of the brain during exercise could speed recovery from a stroke, a new study shows.

Researchers at the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST) say these low-powered pulses target specific connections between cells called synapses. They carry messages using chemicals called neurotransmitters and strengthen the connections that improve language, movement, balance, and memory.

The therapy known as subliminal electrical stimulation appears to be more effective than current stroke rehabilitation strategies.

“By reducing power, we can minimize the impact on non-target neurons and provide a more natural and less damaging way to promote brain recovery after a stroke,” says lead author Dr. Kyungsoo Kim in a media release.

The study, carried out on rats, shows that treatment can repair brain damage resulting from stroke. The study authors administered the electrical stimulation to the animals while the animals were walking on what they say also stimulates gray and white brain matter.

The team performed the procedure twice a day for 16 days, monitoring the behavior of the rodents during each session. The Korean scientists also tested the presence of proteins that act as markers of brain health.

“Our approach has successfully increased the survival of neural connections after a stroke, while at the same time reducing energy consumption and avoiding side effects,” adds study co-author Dr. Seung-Jun Yoo.

Electrical stimulation needs help to repair the brain

The team also confirmed its results with computer simulations. Exercise or electrical stimulation alone couldn’t excite the synapses, but the combination of the two allowed the neurons to fire and send signals to each other. Scans showed that stimulated regions contained more chemicals and showed signs of neural reconstruction after treatment. The animals also became livelier and more agile.

Strokes are life-threatening and occur when a blood vessel is either blocked or ruptured, cutting off blood supply to parts of the brain. Brain cells need to regenerate and reestablish neural connections after such an event.

There have been various attempts to improve the process through physical exercise or direct electrical stimulation of the brain. However, electrical stimulation can have undesirable side effects, such as language and motor skills problems. Such therapies can also lead to the triggering of unwanted neurons around the target area. In addition, the devices consume a lot of electricity, so they are expensive to operate and require batteries with a high capacity.

The study in Scientific Reports suggests combining subliminal electrical stimulation with motor training early in rehabilitation to strengthen brain connections and aid motor recovery. The researchers next plan to test whether it is effective for stroke-induced brain damage of varying degrees of severity. They add deep brain stimulation, and other electrical treatments can eventually treat a wide range of neurological conditions.

The South West News Service author, Mark Waghorn, contributed to this report.