Touch therapy helps brains recover following stroke

Recovering from a stroke is harder for those who have been exposed to stress in the womb, but massage-like treatment can improve the odds.

Dr. Gerlinde Metz says it has been encouraging to see the positive impact of tactile stimulation.

New research out of the University of Lethbridge has found that rats exposed to prenatal stress that then experienced a stroke in adulthood suffered more severe motor disabilities compared to rats that experienced only a stroke.

However, applying tactile stimulation — massage-like touching — to the twice-stressed rats helped to promote their stroke recovery. The study was performed by researchers at the University’s Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCBN) and Department of Biological Sciences, and also included post-doctoral students. The study is published in the free, open-access, online scientific research journal Plos One.

“We now know that stress in early life will change the stress response throughout the lifetime, and that it can worsen the response to stressful events in adulthood,” says lead researcher Dr. Gerlinde Metz, a neuroscience professor who is also an Alberta Heritage Medical Senior Scholar. “It was encouraging to see the positive impact of tactile stimulation, because effective therapies for strokes is an area that has been very unsuccessful.”

The research revealed that prenatal stress programs the way adults respond to stress, and compromises behavioural and structural recovery from ischemic brain damage caused by a stroke. That finding was reflected through behavioural tests that showed double-stressed rats had more difficulty performing motor tasks such as walking and grasping an object. At a physiological level, these animals’ brain tissues showed a negative impact on the transcription of genes related to central pathways of neuronal survival and plasticity, or the ability of the brain to learn new things.

However, after receiving a type of massage therapy — having their backs stroked with a soft baby hairbrush for 20 minutes a day — the rats performed better in the motor tasks. Ultimately, tactile stimulation was found to prompt neuroprotective processes that allowed the rats to recover faster from stroke. The researchers concluded that tactile stimulation can offset the consequences of even a remote adverse experience that occurs early in life.

Metz says the research provides important and much-needed clues about the impact of stress on human health, particularly as it relates to both triggering and treating a stroke.

“We know that stress affects our well-being and it can make us sick. It causes high blood pressure, which is the number one risk factor for a stroke. But we know very little about how therapies that alleviate stress can be beneficial for stroke victims,” she says. “This research shows it’s important to take into account stress reduction if we want patients with strokes to have better outcomes.”

The paper entitled Lifetime Stress Cumulatively Programs Brain Transcriptome and Impedes Stroke Recovery: Benefit of Sensory Stimulation can be found here.