New Zealand research offers hope to stroke victims

Kiwi scientists think they've discovered a new way to help people recover from stroke.

An Otago neuroscientist and a Belgian brain surgeon have teamed up for a trial that involves implanting an electrode into a patient's brain.

Four years ago Paul Robertson-Linch's life was turned upside down. A stroke robbed him of his speech, and all movement down his right side.

"That was pretty scary. I remember thinking is this going to be life now? Is this it?" he says.

A third of the 9000 people who have a stroke each year will never get back to normal. Until now, scientists have tried electrical and magnetic stimulation of the diseased side of the brain, without success.

But in a world-first trial scientists decided to target the healthy side instead.

"Putting an electrode in the healthy side of the brain when someone has a stroke on the other side is really not a conventional thing to do," Otago University Professor John Reynolds says.

By chance, one of the only people in the world who could help, a pioneering Belgian neurosurgeon, had just moved to Dunedin.

"We place an electrode on this part of the brain, the healthy part of the brain to send messages across from this side to the stroke side," says Otago University Professor Dirk De Ridder.

The wire is tunnelled under the skin to the stimulator in the chest. Mr Robertson-Linch was one of two stroke patients who volunteered to trial it.

The device is activated during rehab sessions, and the initial results have scientists excited.

"When the patient had only physio there was no real benefit. But when he continued on physio plus stimulation you saw a fairly dramatic improvement in all the measures that were taken," Prof De Ridder says.

"I couldn't hold my toothbrush when I came here. Now I can hold it and get it up to my face," Mr Robertson-Linch says. "It's fantastic, yeah."

The researchers now want to expand the trial - hoping this could change the lives of many more people.