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Brain Stimulation May Help Some Stroke Patients

Treating stroke patients who have lost control and awareness of one side of their body with magnetic stimulation to the brain may improve their symptoms, researchers said today.

In a new, small study published in the journal Neurology, patients who were given quick bursts of stimulation over a couple of weeks improved by about 20 percent on tests of vision and attention, while those who got a fake stimulation treatment didn't improve significantly.

But researchers said it's still unclear what types of patients might benefit from the treatment and by how much.

About half of people who have a stroke end up with difficulty processing or reacting to things on one side of their body, most often on the left side after a stroke in the right side of the brain, said Dr. Anna Barrett, director of stroke rehabilitation research at the Kessler Foundation in West Orange, New Jersey, who wasn't involved in the new study. That post-stroke condition is known as neglect.

"People that have that tend to do much worse in their eventual recovery," Barrett said. "They're less likely to become completely independent."

Most of those patients can improve with therapy and exercises, she said, but the process is often slow, and keeping people in the hospital during it is costly.

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She said that because of that, the new findings are "promising," but added that brain stimulation is still an experimental technique, and not ready to be used as part of normal stroke rehabilitation.

For the study, Italian researchers randomly assigned 20 patients with neglect to get real or fake magnetic stimulation in ten sessions over two weeks, in addition to their conventional rehab program. The treatment involved an electromagnetic coil placed over the left side of the brain that transmitted pulses of electrical currents.

Similar types of stimulation treatment are used in some patients with depression or during spinal surgery, according to Barrett. The device costs about $50,000.
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