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DAEGU, South Korea — Electricity stimulation of the brain during exercise could help speed up the recovery from a stroke, a new study reveals.

Researchers from the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST) say these low-power pulses target specific connections between cells called synapses. They pass messages using chemicals called neurotransmitters, strengthening the links which improve speech, movement, balance, and memory.

The therapy, called subthreshold electrical stimulation, appears to be more effective than current strategies for stroke rehabilitation.

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

The study, conducted on rats, shows that the treatment can repair brain damage that results from having a stroke. Study authors administered the electrical stimulation while the animals ran on an exercise wheel, which they say also stimulates grey and white brain matter.

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

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

Electrical stimulation needs help to fix the brain

The team also confirmed their findings using computer simulations. Exercise or electrical stimulation alone failed to excite the synapses however, combining the two allowed the neurons to start firing and send signals to each other. Scans showed stimulated regions contained more chemicals after the treatment and displayed signs of neural reconstruction. The animals also became livelier and more agile.

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

There have been various attempts to enhance the process using physical exercise or direct electrical stimulation to the brain. However, electrical stimulation can have undesirable side-effects, such as speech and motor problems. Such therapies may also result in the triggering of unwanted neurons around the target area. The devices also consume a lot of power, meaning they are expensive to run and require high-capacity batteries.

The study in Scientific Reports suggests combining sub-threshold electrical stimulation with motor training early in rehabilitation strengthens brain connections and aids motor recovery. The researchers next plan to test if it works for stroke-induced brain damage of different severities. They add deep brain stimulation and other electrical treatments may eventually treat a wide range of neurological diseases.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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