Electrical currents to the brain can help patients recover motor skills following a stroke, new research has revealed.
The researchers, led by Heidi Johansen-Berg at Oxford University, applied transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, to stroke survivors to see if it aided in their rehabilitation.
The technique, which involves applying a low-level current to certain areas of the brain using electrodes placed on the head, has been shown to improve motor learning in healthy brains.
The researchers selected 24 volunteers who experienced their first stroke in the past six months. The group was split in two: half received a placebo treatment, while the other half received the tDCS, applied to the side of the brain that was damaged by their stroke.
Both groups engaged in exhaustive motor training, along with either placebo or treatment, for nine days, and were tested before, during and up to three months after, to monitor the development of their motor skills.
"The assessments before the training were used to establish a baseline score for motor skills," Johansen-Berg explains. "Further assessments could then be used to determine what improvement there was above that baseline."
Three months after the test, the group that received the electrical stimulation improved faster and further than those without the treatment. Those that received the electrical current "were better able to use their hands and arms for movements such as lifting, reaching and grasping objects", Johnansen-Berg says.
According to brain imaging conducted after the treatment, the patients who received the tDCS also showed increased brain activity when moving their affected hand or arm.
A study volunteer named Jan describes the sensation of the currents as pain-free: "more like a mild tingle or a static electric shock right on the top of my head."
Jan also says the training was exhausting, but rewarding. "It was huge fun. Even after the first session I felt as if I could do more, even though I was knackered. That made me go back every day, and I found it easier and easier."
The researchers caution that more studies into the long-term effects of the treatment are needed before any final conclusions can be drawn, and before clinical application becomes an option.
The research was published in Science Translational Medicine.
Related reading: The buzz around brain stimulation
Amy Middleton is a Melbourne-based journalist.
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