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Stroke Victims Exercise the Body to Exercise the Mind

WebMD Health News

June 2, 2000 -- When blood flow to the brain is cut off during a stroke, the lack of oxygen can have truly devastating results. For years, doctors have been advocating physical therapy after a stroke, but costs are many, and guarantees are few. Although physical therapy can appear to work outwardly, with some improvement physically, now there is evidence to suggest that long-term changes actually occur mentally, with undamaged brain cells "stepping up" to take the place of damaged cells.

This is the first evidence, researcher Edward Taub, PhD, tells WebMD, that a physical therapy can have a direct impact on the brain.

Taub, who is a behavioral neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says his research team has developed a highly intensive form of physical therapy that, in a relatively short period of time, delivers results so impressive that not only the body, but also the brain itself shows significant improvement.

The team developed constraint-induced movement therapy about a decade ago. The hallmark of the treatment is that it produces a very large improvement in the ability to use the arm weakened by the stroke in everyday living situations, Taub says. He explains that basically, a victim's "good" arm is restrained for 90% of their waking hours, for either two or three consecutive weeks, depending on how much rehabilitation they need, so that they will use the affected arm more.

During treatment, patients spend seven hours of each weekday in training at the clinic, with only a one-hour break. "It is that concentration ... that we [believe to be] the therapeutic factor," he tells WebMD.

Taub had already demonstrated that this technique was very effective at restoring arm function, and earlier work did show dramatic brain changes immediately following the therapy. In this latest work, the team examined whether those brain changes would last, and if they really impacted quality of life.

According to the report, published in the June issue of the journal Stroke, Taub's team evaluated 13 men and women, aged 33 to 73 years, who'd suffered a stroke six months to 17 years prior to the study.

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