Researchers at Newcastle Hospitals are leading the way in an international study which aims to help stroke patients regain hand movement and strength. The stroke research team at the Royal Victoria Infirmary are currently the top recruiting site in the UK and have seen promising results from patients enrolled on the study. For more information see the IDTechEx report on Bioelectronic Medicine 2019-2029.
The purpose of the study, sponsored by MicroTransponder Inc, is to treat weakness of the hand and arm and recover function in patients who have suffered stroke. Dr Anand Dixit, Consultant Physician and Chief Investigator for the study at Newcastle Hospitals, has described the results so far as "phenomenal".
"We are very hopeful, as we're seeing some phenomenal results. I think, when we analyse the whole results, we are hoping to see that this is a very transformative intervention," Dr Dixit explained. He adds: "We understand the brain very little, and I think we underestimate it's ability to relearn."
The trial focuses on a technique called vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), which involves the implantation of a device — similar to a pacemaker — placed under the skin in the chest cavity, with the combination of rehabilitation therapy sessions over the course of six weeks. The device provides electric signals that activate the vagus nerve, which stimulates the brain and allow it to 're-learn' how to perform tasks. The technique is already used to treat severe depression and epilepsy.
The vagus nerve is located in the neck, and is unlike any other nerve in the body. It directly connects to the brain and sends important signals to tell the brain what to learn, and when to learn it.
Once the device is placed, the patient will work with a rehabilitation specialist over a series of sessions (displayed below) aimed at rebuilding the motor circuits associated with certain movements. Each time they perform a correct movement, the therapist pushes a button, which sends a wireless signal to the device to deliver a mild electrical pulse to the vagus nerve. This tells the brain to "pay attention" to that movement. This nerve stimulation may be so mild patients do not feel it - depending on the settings and their tolerance. Over the course of several weeks, these paired therapy sessions are designed to restore arm and hand function.
Colin Clough, a stroke patient who is on the trial, had not been able to use his left hand since his stroke a year ago. After treatment it is reported that he can now carry out tasks such as carrying a tray using both hands.
The study is being coordinated by staff at Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals, the University of Glasgow and at hospitals across the United States.
Source and top image: Newcastle Hospital