Hyperbaric treatment revitalizes neurons in damaged brains, Israeli researchers find.
We always think of brain damage as irreversible, whether it’s a result of a stroke, traumatic injury or metabolic disorder. But three Israeli researchers recently reported that treatment with high levels of oxygen can reinvigorate dormant neurons and improve patients’ motor function, memory and other abilities that current therapy and rehab programs aren’t able to address.
Their study focused on post-stroke patients and used hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) – high-pressure chambers where the oxygen-rich air increases oxygen levels in the body tenfold.
As reported in the journal PLoS ONE on January 15, analysis of brain imaging showed significantly increased neuronal activity after a two-month period of HBOT treatment, compared to control periods of non-treatment.
Patients experienced measurable improvements in neurological function such as a reversal of paralysis, increased sensation and renewed use of language — even years after their stroke.
The study was carried out by researchers from Tel Aviv University and Assaf Harofeh Medical Center, led by Dr. Shai Efrati and Prof. Eshel Ben-Jacob. They predict that the HBOT method could make a world of difference in the daily life of people with brain damage, helping them regain a measure of independence and complete tasks such as bathing, cooking, climbing stairs or reading a book.
Could also ward off dementia?
Efrati explained that there are several degrees of brain injury. HBOT specifically targets those neurons that retain enough energy to stay alive but not enough to fire electrical signals.
Though the brain normally consumes 20 percent of the body’s oxygen, that can only operate five to 10 percent of neurons at any one time. The researchers theorized that much more oxygen is necessary to rebuild neuronal connections and stimulate inactive neurons to begin healing.
For their study, the Israelis sought post-stroke patients whose condition was no longer improving. After assessing candidates’ brain features and functionality, 74 participants – who’d suffered a stroke between six and 36 months previously — were divided into two groups.
The first treatment group received HBOT from the beginning of the study, and the second received no treatment for two months, then received a two-month period of HBOT treatment consisting of 40 two-hour sessions five times a week in high-pressure chambers containing oxygen-rich air.
Efrati said he has seen similar improvement in patients whose brain injuries occurred up to 20 years before, challenging the accepted wisdom that the brain has a limited window for growth and change.
“The findings challenge the leading paradigm since they demonstrate beyond any doubt that neuroplasticity can still be activated for months and years after acute brain injury, thus revealing that many aspects of the brain remain plastic into adulthood,” said Ben-Jacob.
The researchers are now conducting a study on the benefits of HBOT for those with traumatic brain injury. This treatment also has potential as an anti-aging therapy, applicable in other disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia at their early stages.
“It is now understood that many brain disorders are related to inefficient energy supply to the brain,” explained Efrati. “HBOT treatment could right such metabolic abnormalities before the onset of full dementia, where there is still potential for recovery.”