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Stem Cell Therapy for Stroke Recovery: How Does It Work?

stem cell therapy for stroke patients

Can stem cell therapy promote recovery after a stroke? This relatively recent breakthrough in stroke treatment appears very promising and gives significant data that supports the use of stem cell therapy after neurological injury.

In fact, recent studies utilizing stem cell therapy reported that some participants were able to regain the ability to walk and no longer required the use of a wheelchair. If you’re interested in learning more about the pros and cons of this cutting-edge treatment, read on.

This article will explain what stem cell therapy is and how it can potentially promote recovery after a stroke.

Use these links to navigate the following sections:

What Is Stem Cell Therapy?

To understand how stem cell therapy can help individuals recover after stroke, let’s first discuss the basics of stem cells. Stem cells are “a class of undifferentiated cells that are able to differentiate into specialized cell types,” according to Medical News Today.

In other words, they are cells that have the potential to become specialized cells within the body, based on which bodily system they are in. For example, stem cells have the ability to become cardiac cells, nerve cells, or blood cells.

Additionally, stem cells can divide infinitely, producing other stem cells or specialized cells. In this instance, the new cells produced can be ideal for replacing damaged cells caused by neurological injury such as stroke.

Therefore, by implanting stem cells into areas of the brain affected by stroke, they should ideally differentiate into brain cells. This process can promote recovery by regenerating and repairing damaged tissue within the brain.

In the following section, we’ll discuss how stem cell therapy can potentially be applied for stroke recovery.

How Does Stem Cell Therapy for Stroke Patients Work?

Stem cell therapy for stroke begins with a surgery to transplant stem cells into the tissues surrounding damaged areas of the brain.

It was previously believed that stem cells could infiltrate areas damaged by stroke and replace damaged brain cells. However, that theory has been disproven and it is now known that stem cells do not change into brain cells.

According to lead stem cell researcher Dr. Gary Steinberg, “…These [stem] cells don’t actually integrate into the brain long term and become neurons to reconstitute circuits.

What they do is to pump out very powerful growth factors, molecules and proteins that enhance native mechanisms of recovery, such as new synapses of neurons that are there, new blood vessels, and they have a very profound effect on modulating the immune system.

And in that way, what we believe they do is to turn the adult brain into a neonatal or infant brain, which has a lot of ability to recover after injury.”

Based on this explanation, stem cell therapy doesn’t necessarily translate to new brain cell growth.  Rather, it promotes an environment within your brain that resembles a young, cell-regenerating machine and helps stimulate neuroplasticity.  Neuroplasticity is the central nervous system’s ability to reorganize its circuits based on our behaviors.

Up next, we’ll discuss what current research on stem cell therapy for stroke recovery shows.

Research Supporting Stem Cell Therapy for Stroke Recovery

Although Dr. Steinberg’s clinical study only included 18 patients, the results of this stem cell research were phenomenal.

Overall, there was substantial motor improvement reported for the research participants. One patient in particular, Sonia Coontz, described her limbs as “waking up” after being asleep for years after her stroke.

To quantify these results, there was an 11.4-point improvement in motor function based on the Fugl-Meyer test, which is a scale used to measure patients’ movement deficits. These results translate to significant improvements in the participants’ mobility of their upper and lower extremities.

To quote Steinberg again,

“This wasn’t just, ‘They couldn’t move their thumb, and now they can.’ Patients who were in wheelchairs are walking now.”

Additionally, multiple preclinical studies have shown that stem cell therapy increases functional recovery after an acute, sub-acute, and chronic stroke.

However, studies ultimately show mixed results on whether stem cells can successfully differentiate. For example, studies reported that stem cells were able to restore “lost neuronal and vascular elements” while others indicate “limited neurorestorative ability.”

This means that some participants were able to restore physical function, while others had limited results. Stem cell therapy for stroke recovery remains a vital area for enhanced patient recovery and requires further clinical research.

One major factor involved in stem cell therapy for stroke recovery is determining which type of stem cell to use. There are a variety of stem cells including embryonic, mesenchymal, and induced pluripotent stem cells. While each type of stem cell has its specific beneficial properties, research shows conflicting results regarding which stem cell is the best to use.

In addition to determining what type of stem cell is ideal for stroke recovery, other factors including the optimal timing of delivery and dosage need to be considered.

How Much Will Stem Cell Therapy for Stroke Cost?

If you’re interested in stem cell therapy there are initial steps to take. First, see if there are any clinical trials in your area that you would be a candidate for. Clinical trials are generally not free of charge. However, most are typically federally or privately funded, resulting in minimal costs.

As a point of comparison, current stem cell therapies for other areas of the body (like the knee) range from $3,000 to $5,000. Stem cell treatment for stroke requires an initial brain surgery (a much costlier procedure), so you can expect stem cell therapy for stroke to require higher costs.

To discover clinical stem cell trials near you, go to this clinical trials web page and type in “stroke” under conditions, and type “stem cell” under other terms.

Stem Cell Therapy Is Not Necessary for Stroke Recovery

It’s essential to understand that stem cell therapy is not a necessary requirement for stroke recovery. While stem cell therapy appears to be a very promising treatment, it’s still in the developmental stage.

Recovery after stroke is focused on the brain’s capability of using neuroplasticity. Consistently practicing movements weakened by stroke stimulates the brain and will strengthen control of the muscles. This encourages healthy, unaffected regions of the  brain to rewire functions affected by stroke.

Therefore, when you continue participating in therapy and performing repetitive practice of movements, you stimulate the brain and promote functional recovery. Rehabilitation after a stroke can occur even if it has been decades since your initial injury. At Flint Rehab, we’ve heard the success stories first-hand.

For example, one patient who used MusicGlove hand therapy improved his hand function 24 years post-stroke. Another patient recovered from paralysis 7 years post-stroke by using FitMi home therapy. The brain’s neuroplasticity is ongoing and regaining function to participate in daily life is always possible.

Understanding Stem Cells for Stroke Recovery

Stem cell therapy is a promising procedure that may help individuals recover after a stroke. It works by transplanting stem cells into the brain tissue surrounding the location of the stroke. The stem cells boost the brain’s ability to release growth factors, molecules, and proteins that stimulate neuroplasticity and other recovery mechanisms.

No matter how long it’s been since your stroke, there’s hope that stem cell therapy can help. Combined with traditional neurological rehabilitation that uses neuroplasticity to regain function, stem cell therapy can be an option for you to reach optimal recovery.

We hope this article helps you understand what stem cell therapy is, consider the financial costs, and know that it may promote recovery after stroke.

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