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Can Caresses Protect the Brain from Stroke?

Neurons cut off by a stroke may have the inherent ability to reroute blood flow and save themselves

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You are visiting your elderly aunt, and you notice her speech begin to slur. She seems to be having trouble staying upright in her seat, and she looks confused. You recognize the signs of a stroke. You shout for your uncle to call 911 as you help your aunt lie down in a comfortable position. You run your fingers gently over her lips, face and fingertips as you sing into her ear and continue talking to her. The EMTs rush in and outfit her in what looks like a bathing cap encrusted with electronic bling—a kind of defibrillator designed to deliver electrical stimulation to her brain. As they carry her out on a stretcher, your worry is slightly eased, knowing that the sensory stimulation you gave her in those first minutes may have saved her from serious disability.

Today we can do little to help stroke victims. But if new research bears out, such stimulation might reroute the brain's blood supply to prevent cells from dying—a much needed breakthrough for the nearly one million Americans every year who suffer a stroke. As of now, the only intervention available is a drug that breaks up blood clots, and only a small number of patients benefit from it. In other words, although scientists have been studying stroke for decades, brain damage is inevitable in most cases. Stroke remains the fourth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and the most common cause of long-term disability. “We have so few therapies for this problem. We need to move more of them forward,” says Steven C. Cramer, a clinician who specializes in stroke at the University of California, Irvine.

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