When a stroke deprives the brain of blood, the nerve cells in the brain are either damaged or die, causing the physical and mental changes typical of stroke. Now, research is telling us that the brain is a fighter and does try to heal itself.
Stroke occurs when blood vessels feeding the brain are either blocked or leak (hemorrhage), depriving the brain of blood and starving it of the oxygen that brain cells need to survive. Damage or death to nerve cells in the brain occurs, resulting in the physical and mental changes that stroke victims experience.
Not long ago, it was thought that the brain had little ability to repair itself following stroke. We know, however, that individuals can and do regain function. There is an increasing amount of research indicating that the brain is a fighter when damaged and does attempt to heal itself.
We now know that the brain has the ability to change over its lifetime. So the question arises: Can the brain repair itself after a stroke? And if so, how?
The initial recovery following stroke is most likely due to decreased swelling of brain tissue, removal of toxins from the brain, and improvement in the circulation of blood in the brain. Cells damaged, but not beyond repair, will begin to heal and function more normally. Rehabilitation therapies stimulate sprouting of existing nerve cells, causing them to make connections to other nerve cells. The brain can recruit surviving parts to take over the functions of the damaged areas.
Neuroscientists previously believed that the brain cells you were born with would be the only ones you would ever have. More recent research also suggests that the brain may actually create new nerve cells through a process called neurogenesis. Stem-cell research is now under way to see if this new nerve-cell growth can be maximized and directed toward the most damaged areas of the brain.
There is hope for recovery following stroke. Even elderly and ill individuals who suffer a stroke can improve. The best outcomes occur when rehabilitation, including physical, occupational, and speech therapies, is started early. Early rehabilitation can also prevent greater disability that otherwise often occurs in individuals who fail to obtain treatment shortly after their stroke.
While the greatest recovery is likely to occur within the first few months following stroke, continued gains can occur over a much longer duration, even throughout the stroke patient’s lifetime.
Jon Bentz, PhD, ABN, is the manager of Lancaster General Neuropsychology Specialists. A clinical neuropsychologist, he has worked in the rehabilitation field for more than 30 years, providing assessment and treatment of cognitive and behavioral disorders resulting from stroke, traumatic brain injury, and other dementias and neurological disorders. He obtained his doctorate from Virginia Tech and is a clinical associate professor at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.