"We have discovered a way to get the brain to rewire itself after a stroke," said Dr. Larry Benowitz, a neuroscientist at Harvard University.
Stroke generally damages parts of the brain controlling things like movement and speech. Once it was thought the brain could never repair itself, but Benowitz and his colleagues discovered that a naturally occurring molecule called inosine can make it happen.
Injected directly into the undamaged half of the brain, inosine caused healthy new nerves to stretch across brain hemispheres, replacing the damaged ones: In other words, the healthy side of the brain is able to take over functions for the unhealthy side.
"We're seeing effects within a week already," Benowitz said.
In lab tests in which two rats had a stroke, one was given inosine, while the second did not receive a treatment.
The animal that was given the treatment was able to control its paw and able to reach for food.
Comparable motor skill recoveries in people could make a huge difference in quality of life.
"This study is different, this approach is different," said Dr. Lawrence Brass, of the National Stroke Association.
Stroke experts like Brass say until now, most treatments have focused on breaking up blood clots that cause strokes, so success in repairing a damaged brain, even in rats, holds great potential.
"We're now beginning to recognize that areas on opposite sides of the brain can contribute to recovery," Brass said.
Because inosine is a naturally occurring substance, the hope is it will not cause side effects. Much more testing is necessary before it can be tried in people.