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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.

In fact, recent studies utilizing stem cell therapy were able to get stroke patients who were in wheelchairs walking again! 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 help promote recovery after a stroke.

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What Is Stem Cell Therapy?

To understand how stem cell therapy can help individuals recover after stroke, you should know 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 can turn into various other types of cells depending on their surrounding environment. Additionally, stem cells can divide infinitely, which may be ideal for replacing damage caused by neurological injuries like strokes.

Therefore, by implanting stem cells into areas of the brain affected by stroke, they should ideally be able to differentiate into brain cells and promote recovery.

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?

doctor holding brain scans of stroke patient

Stem cell therapy for stroke involves 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 dead brain cells. Interestingly, it’s now known that stem cells don’t turn into brain cells.

To help explain this, here’s what Dr. Gary Steinberg, the lead researcher on one of the latest stem cell projects (and the man who performed 12 out of the 18 surgeries in the study), says:

“…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.”

So, stem cell therapy doesn’t necessarily plant new brain cells into your brain. Rather, it helps turns your brain into a young, cell-regenerating machine, which helps stimulate neuroplasticity and other recovery mechanisms.

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

Research Supporting Stem Cell Therapy for Stroke Recovery

Dr. Steinberg’s clinical study was small. It only included 18 patients but the results were phenomenal.

Overall, there was substantial motor improvement; and one patient, Sonia Coontz, described her limbs as “waking up” after being asleep for years after her stroke.

To put some numbers on the results, there was an 11.4-point improvement in motor function of the Fugl-Meyer test, which is a scale used to measure patients’ movement deficits – and 11.4 points is significant! 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 acute, sub-acute, and chronic stroke.

However, studies ultimately show mixed results. For example, some studies observed that stem cells were able to successfully differentiate and restore “lost neuronal and vascular elements” while others only showed “limited neurorestorative ability.”

Stem cell therapy for stroke recovery is still very much a work in progress that requires further 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 different stem cells including embryonic, mesenchymal, and induced pluripotent stem cells. While each type of stem cell has its pros and cons, research shows conflicting results.

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

How Much Will Stem Cell Therapy for Stroke Cost?

If you’re interested in stem cell therapy, see if there are any clinical trials in your area. Clinical trials are not free. However, most clinical trials are federally or privately funded, so there is little to no cost to the patient.

As a point of comparison, current stem cell therapies for other areas of the body (like the knee) range from $3,000-$5,000.

However, administering treatment for stroke requires brain surgery (a much costlier procedure), so you can expect stem cell therapy for stroke to be more expensive.

For that reason, it’s best to keep an eye out for clinical trials that you may be a candidate for.

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

woman working with physical therapist instead of doing stem cell therapy for stroke

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

Recovery after stroke is always possible because the brain is capable of using neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the central nervous system’s ability to reorganize its circuits based on our behaviors.

Consistently practicing movements weakened by stroke stimulates the brain and reinforces demand for those functions. This encourages the brain to make neuroadaptive changes and rewire functions affected by stroke to healthy, unaffected regions of the brain.

Therefore, as long as you put in the hard work and stimulate the brain through repetitive practice, you can continue to recover from a stroke. Even if it’s been decades since your stroke, recovery is possible! We’ve heard the success stories first-hand.

For example, one patient who used Flint Rehab’s 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 never runs out of neuroplasticity, so with consistent practice, improvements are always possible.

Stem Cells for Stroke Recovery: Key Points

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. And even if you can’t afford stem cell therapy, the brain will never run out of neuroplasticity, so there’s always potential to recover.

We hope this article helped you better understand what stem cell therapy is and how it may help promote recovery after stroke. Good luck!

Photos from top to bottom: iStock/yacobchuk/utah778/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

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