Tackling Stroke with University Innovation

By guest blogger and Imperial alumnus Margaux Lesaffre

Stroke is the silent killer; there are no clear symptoms until people realise they can’t talk, move or even swallow. Annually, over 5 million deaths worldwide are caused by strokes, ranking this disease in the first ten leading cause of deaths.  In developed countries, the incidence of stroke is dropping, but the outcome is still severe with some stroke victims left permanently disabled.

So what’s the way forward?

University researchers have developed remarkable innovations that could deliver significantly more reliable diagnostics and treatment. This blog looks at different ways university research can tackle this insidious disease.

Focus on Innovative Rehabilitation

When a blood vessel bursts in the brain, or when a blockage forms, parts of the brain may stop receiving oxygen. This can cause brain cells to die. In the regions affected by cell death, the ability to control primary body functions, including speech and muscle control, can be lost.

The aftermath of a stroke depends on which part of the brain is affected and the extent of damage. This is why a stroke is a time-critical emergency. Even if better prevention can ultimately reduce the incidence of strokes, it cannot be completely eliminated. With the consequences of this disease being so severe, a number of academic researchers are focusing their energy on stroke rehabilitation.

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Neural pathways in the brain (NICHD / Flickr)

One staggering innovation is the development of a ‘cognitive prosthetic’. As remarkable as it may sound, this is a device that can learn to replace neural functions lost to a stroke. In action, the prosthetic records neural activity from healthy brain cells to mimic the lost functions in damaged regions of the brain.  The device then has the ability to learn the best stimulation patterns for each patient and adapts to their brain to target specific cerebral deficits. Previously, researchers have focused on stimulating the brain using electricity, but this cognitive prosthetic manages to bypass the damaged region of the brain to regain limb mobility. It’s a significant step closer to a cure.

In cases when a stroke sufferer starts to regain limb movement rehabilitation is necessary to relearn the skills lost due to brain damage. This usually involves repetitive task therapies. But with this kind of rehabilitation, it can be difficult to keep accurate track of a patient’s progress. A system developed recently by researchers in Scotland can do just that. Their innovation can autonomously track the body to provide fine-tuned information about joint movement, perfect for tracking progress through rehabilitation. Unlike previous task-based therapies, this new device is minimally intrusive, requires no expertise and is portable, which improves access for patients who are unable to travel.

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Analysis of body motion, also known as kinematics 

Novel Approaches for Identifying Those at Risk

Exercising and keeping a good diet – including limiting the consumption of alcohol – will lower the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, thus reducing the chances of having a stroke. Stroke management currently relies on encouraging these lifestyle choices, and high quality after-care. But according to the World Health Organization, research should also focus on identifying those at risk . The following university innovations, which seek collaboration with industry for further development, can now identify people prone to strokes before the onset of the disease.

A high fat diet can commonly lead to stroke. Over time, fat is deposited as a plaque on the walls of blood vessels. When plaques rupture in the arteries, a clot can form. When this happens in the brain it will cause oxygen starvation and therefore a stroke. Before rupturing, a plaque may not cause any symptoms and so can go undetected.

Researchers at the University of London have developed an imaging agent that, when combined with a specific amino acid complex, attaches to plaque – rendering it detectable by Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). This innovation can thus help diagnose patients before the onset of a stroke, saving lives and helping to reduce healthcare costs.

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Pulmonary artery artherosclerosis 

As well as plaque build-up, the body provides another indicator that it is readying for a stroke. The build-up of plaques in blood vessels can cause lesions that the body repairs using vascular calcification (VC). An excessive level of VC is therefore a precursor to a stroke. Being able to easily identify patients’ vascular calcification would enable early intervention that may prevent a stroke from happening. Researchers at one university in London have developed an assay that bridges this gap. Their innovation uses a simple blood test to identify the level of calcium phosphate salt in the body – the compound associated to VC. Previous assays have required special equipment and use a high dose of radiation to assess risk, so this new, safer technology, represents fantastic progress in enabling faster access to preventative measures.

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Human artery

With 15 million strokes occurring in the world each year, it is no surprise that there are considerable human and economic costs. An international study comparing stroke case studies revealed that on average, 0.27% of gross domestic product was spent on stroke treatments and prevention by national healthcare systems. With an ageing world population and thus more people at risk, these numbers are likely to rise. This is why university innovations that provide accurate diagnostics and better after-stroke treatments are our best bet to alleviating this human and economic burden.

In the United-Kingdom, there is one stroke every 3 minutes and 27 seconds. This means that in the time it took you to read this blog, 3 people were affected in the UK alone. If you are interested in partnering with the researchers responsible for these innovations to reverse this trend, please register for free and exclusive access to IN-PART.

Header image source: A Health Blog / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0 (cropped)

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