Brain implants may speed up stroke recovery 

Stroke survivors hoping to regain mobility more quickly are signing up to have electrodes implanted in their brains.

Stanford University’s School of Medicine is one of 21 medical centers participating in a nationwide project to study how these electrical cranial implants could speed the recovery process for 174 stroke survivors.

One group of subjects will receive traditional rehabilitative therapy, while the other group will have surgery installing electrodes temporarily on the surface of their brains. For them, a pacemaker-like device will deliver a low-volt charge during physical therapy, according to Jamie Henderson, director of stereotactic and functional neurosurgery at Stanford.

"The brain has the capability to reorganize, and the idea behind cranial therapy is that the electricity helps to speed that process," Henderson said.

When Judy Walsh had a massive three-day headache in April 1999, she didn’t realize she was having a stroke; she took Tylenol, hoping it would go away. Then, one morning, she fell down in her apartment. At the emergency room, she discovered she had lost function on the left side of her body.

Months of physical therapy gave her enough mobility to function on her own, but she couldn’t do many of the things that gave her life meaning — like hold her grandchildren.

"My arm was still too weak, and nobody trusted me to hold their kids," Walsh said.

Walsh signed up to participate in the study at Northstar Neuroscience, the company organizing the electrode-based research. Within six weeks, she noticed major improvements.

"When I had [the electrodes] in, I could not tell that it was working, and when they took it out I didn’t feel any different, but my arm was stronger," Walsh said.

Doctors at the stroke center at Peninsula Medical Center in Burlingame see at least one new patient per day, according to Robert Telfer, a neurosurgeon at the center. Many patients must undergo a battery of therapies just so they can bathe, dress and brush their teeth again.

"These therapies are very helpful, but it depends on the type of stroke to a large extent," Telfer said. "A lot of people need to relearn how to do things."

The experimental therapy has already been tried on 32 patients. Researchers found that patients who received cortical stimulation during rehabilitation improved 15 to 30 percent in standardized test scores of hand and arm function. The control group patients improved 0 to 12 percent.

Patients had few side effects from the implants; most of the risks associated with the therapy are related to undergoing surgery, according to Henderson.

E-mail Beth Winegarner at bwinegarner@examiner.com.

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