Can magnets help stroke patients?
In the UK one person has a stroke around every five minutes. This potentially debilitating condition occurs when blood vessels in our brain either have a blockage or a haemorrhage, which stops oxygen reaching parts of our brain. While the areas affected change from case to case, around 20 to 30 percent of patients experitence a condition called aphasia which affects our ability to read, write, speak, or understand language. This condition can be particularly frustrating as patients find them suddenly unable to communicate with with their family, or their needs and wishes to hospital staff.
In patients with aphasia, two areas of the brain are likely to be affected, (which in 97% of people are in the left hemisphere of the brain). These are Broca's Area, in your frontal lobe which affects how we produce speech and Wernicke's Area, in the cerebral cortex, which affects how we understand speech. In order to minimise the impact of stroke, doctors aim for fast intervention, to restore the oxygen supply to deprived areas as quickly as possible. However, once damage has been done the current treatment only involves Speech and Language Therapy which, in the first few weeks aims to provide practical help for patients to communicate their needs on a daily basis.
This week, however, a paper has just come out from a team at the McGill University in Montreal who have been trying to improve language function using transcranial magnetic stimulation. This involved using a magnetic coil which when you put it next to someone's skull, creates a changing magnetic field inciting an electric current in the nerve cells just on the other side of their skull. It's at a really low intensity, but if you held it over the motor areas in your brain you'd feel muscle twitching as your nerve cells were activated.
They hoped that by using this stimulation on areas deprived of oxygen during a stroke, they'd be exercising these areas and it might help bring those back into use a bit quicker. They tested 24 patients, giving half of them real stimulation and half of them fake for 20 minutes a day, along with 45 minutes of speech therapy for 10 days. They found that those who received the real transcranial magnetic stimulation had a 3 times greater recovery rate, as measured on aphasia language tests than those who didn't. Obviously, it's a small study with only 24 patients, so they want to test this method on much trials, but it's looking very positive.