It's certainly not a news flash to say that being in a stimulating environment, where there's plenty to perceive and think about, is good for the brain – new neural pathways are formed, and existing ones are kept from atrophying. Now, however, researchers have discovered a way of replicating and reinforcing those good effects in any environment. It is hoped that the new technology will allow strokes to be treatable up to two days after they have occurred. Most current treatments must be administered within a matter of hours after the event.
The research was carried out by scientists at Sweden's Lund University, in collaboration with American colleagues.
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Lab rats were subjected to strokes, then placed in one of two environments – some went into a regular cage, while others were placed in an "enriched" cage that contained interesting things like several levels of tubes, beams and ladders. It was found that being in the enriched cage activated a gene coded for the protein sigma-1 receptor, which plays a key role in helping the brain to recover from a stroke.
The researchers then injected those rats with cutamesine, a substance that activates the sigma-1 receptor, and found that they regained their brain function more quickly than the untreated rats. Essentially, the treatment simply recreates and enhances the brain's natural response to being in an enriched environment.
Although the basic research began over 15 years ago, the treatment is only now finally being used in a clinical trial on stroke patients by a Japanese pharmaceutical company.
"This is an excellent example of how basic research can be translated into a healthcare setting and possibly lead to new and better therapies," said Lund's Prof. Tadeusz Wieloch. "It also exemplifies the fact that, within medical research, it is a long journey from experimental studies to results that benefit the patient."