Strokes cripple more people in the U.S. than any other disease. Modern drugs can unblock clogged arteries if patients get to care facilities in time. But the longer the trip to the hospital, the more nerve cells die from lack of blood. Better ways to avert brain damage could dramatically improve patients’ quality of life. Recently a team of neuroscientists stumbled on a very low tech way to completely prevent stroke damage in rats: tickle their whiskers.

A team led by professor Ron Frostig of the University of California, Irvine, induced strokes in rats by blocking an artery to the brain. The researchers then stimulated their whiskers, in­tending to measure the rats’ brain activity to learn how the stroke damage affected sensory functions. Instead they found that if they vibrated a single whisker within two hours of the stroke, neurons that ordinarily would have died continued to function normally, and the rats ended up with no paralysis or sensory deficits. The exact mechanism of the protective effect is not clear, but it seems to involve a rerouting of blood through undamaged veins in the brain.

Follow-up research published in the journal Stroke in Feb­ruary showed that the pattern of tickling does not matter (though more helps), and ongoing research in Frostig’s lab has shown that the stimulation does not have to be tactile, either. Auditory beeps prevent damage equally well.

The implications for human stroke victims are exciting, but there is no guarantee that playing music or touching sensitive areas such as the hands or face will have the same effect in people. In particular, the rats’ much smaller brain might have helped their recovery. Still, Frostig is cautiously optimistic: “You may be able to help people way before the ambulance arrives, way before they can get any other treatment.” It wouldn’t hurt to talk to them and give their hands a squeeze on the way to the hospital, he says.