Stroke survivors face a unique collection of challenges after the event. One of the most recognizable and common effects of a stroke is hemiparesis, or a weakness in one side of the body. Affecting about 8 out of 10 stroke victims, hemiparesis can cause survivors trouble while performing simple tasks such as eating and dressing. While health professionals and researchers have been searching for ways to aid stroke survivors with their movement, often their focus is on the mildly impaired, leaving few options for improvement in the most severely disabled patients.

A new, 30-patient study coming out of Washington has provided a glimmer of hope for those suffering from severe post-stroke disability, showing that the stimulation of a specific area of the brain can affect arm movements.

“Little research has looked at this severely impaired population — most is aimed at improving relatively mild movement impairments — and, as a consequence, no validated treatment is available to help those with the most severe disabilities,” said Rachel Harrington, a Ph.D. student in the Interdisciplinary Program in neuroscience at Georgetown University medical Center (GUMC), said in a press release.

The study is the first of its kind, focusing on the changes that transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) can cause in patients with the most severe post-stroke limb impairment. Stimulating the side of the brain not affected by the stroke altered the motor function of these patients in a way that was not observed in patients with more mild impairment. This suggested that the targeted brain area may play a special role in recovery only for those patients with severe disability.

Harrington said that follow-up studies will aim to discover if repeated stimulation of this brain area could help “teach’ it to control the impaired limb.

“Stimulating this area repeatedly may force the brain to use this latent area — neurons that fire together wire together,” she added. “These findings offer promise that these patients may be able to gain function, independence, and a better quality of life.”

Harrington is working alongside the study’s principal investigator Dr. Michelle L. Harris-Love, a member of the Center for Brain Plasticity and Repair, a program based at Georgetown and MedStar National Rehabilitation Newtork (MedStar NRH). The research is set to be presented at Neuroscience 2015, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

Source: Harrington R, Chan E, Mohapatra S, Wutzke C, A Rounds, Abraham D, et al. Comparing Disruption Of Bihemispheric Motor Sites On A Reaching Task In Mild And Severe Arm Impairment After Stroke. Presented At Neuroscience 2015. 2015.