New therapy for stroke patients

February 11, 2008 8:43:21 AM PST
According to the American Stroke Association, about 700,000 Americans have a new or recurrent stroke every year. It's the number three cause of death behind heart disease and cancer, and accounts for one out of every 16 deaths in America. It is also a leading cause of disability. In 2007, Americans will pay nearly $63 billion for stroke-related medical costs and disability.

Patients will sometimes improve naturally over the course of about three months, but Robert Levy, M.D., from Northwestern University in Chicago, says, "As many as half of stroke patients will have significant persistent weakness of their arm or leg that affects their ability to perform their activities of daily living." Dr. Levy says having a partially or fully paralyzed limb can wreak havoc on patients' psychological well-being. He says, "It takes away their independence and it takes away their ability to control their lives."

STIMULATING AWAY SIDE EFFECTS: Dr. Levy and colleagues around the country are currently studying a new way to improve side effects in patients who have suffered a stroke. They're studying neurostimulation as a way to rebuild neural pathways to help people regain movement. First, doctors implant an electrode just above the stroke-affected area on the thin membrane that covers the brain. Then, they implant a pacemaker-like controller in the chest. That controller stimulates the electrode implanted in the brain. Patients only receive the stimulation as they're undergoing intense physical rehabilitation. In the study, the rehab and the stimulation were given for six hours a day, five days a week for the first four week, then six hours a day, three days a week for the next two weeks. The idea is to get the brain to re-wire itself so patients can regain movement in the affected limb. Dr. Levy says, "Until now, there has been no real effective way to re-grow pathways within the brain and to restore function to patients who have paralysis as a result of a stroke."

RESULTS: Results of the study show patients who received the stimulation had an average 15 to 30 percent recovery of function. That was compared to those in the control group who had an average 0 to 12 percent recovery of function. According to Dr. Levy, "We have patients who couldn't dress themselves who now dress themselves; people who couldn't answer and dial the phone, who can do that. We have people who can care for their grandchildren where they couldn't before." He says, "It truly has been life-changing in many of these patients."

BONUS: One important aspect to the neurostimluation in the study is that it was beneficial to patients who were years out from having their strokes. On average, patients in the study were between two and three years out from having a stroke, and some patients had suffered a stroke more than 10 years before entering the study. Dr. Levy says, "This is one of the single biggest advances in stroke therapy that I've witnessed in my entire career. We're looking at the tip of the iceberg. The results that we are seeing now are the least well that we can do. As we learn more about the best way to do this, patients may get much better than we see even now." The procedure is still under study, but Dr. Levy says with any luck, this could be available to patients by early 2009.


Information on Dr. Levy's studies and work:

(312) 695-0708