Magnetic brain stimulation may aid in language rehabilitation after a stroke

THE QUESTION Some people who have suffered a stroke have trouble reading, writing, speaking or understanding language, a condition known as aphasia. Might the use of magnetic fields to stimulate brain cells help recover those skills?

THIS STUDY involved 24 people who had aphasia as the result of an ischemic stroke, the type that occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked by a clot or a clogged artery. They were randomly assigned to have transcranial magnetic stimulation — a noninvasive procedure in which a magnetic coil is held over the patient’s head to stimulate nerve cells in the brain — or to have a fake treatment that stimulated only the skin. Treatments, which started five to seven weeks after a stroke occurred, were given daily for 20 minutes, followed by 45 minutes of standard speech and language therapy. Standardized testing revealed that, after 10 days of treatment, improvement in speech and language skills was three times greater, on average, for people given the magnetic brain stimulation than for the others. No one given the brain stimulation showed any decline in skills.

WHO MAY BE AFFECTED? Anyone who has aphasia after a stroke, which can damage parts of the brain that control language. The location and extent of the damage affects the type and severity of aphasia. Some people have trouble finding the words to express thoughts; others hear spoken words or see them in print but cannot understand what they mean; some have trouble using the correct names for people, places or objects; and those most severely affected cannot speak or understand speech and cannot read or write. About a third of those who have a stroke develop aphasia.

CAVEATS The study involved a small number of participants. It did not determine whether the effectiveness of the treatment varied by the location and severity of the brain damage from a stroke or the type of aphasia that resulted.

FIND THIS STUDY June 27 online issue of Stroke.

LEARN MORE ABOUT aphasia at www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders. Learn about transcranial magnetic stimulation at www.mayoclinic.com (click on “Health Information,” then “Tests and Procedures”).

The research described in Quick Study comes from peer-reviewed journals. Nonetheless, conclusive evidence about a treatment's effectiveness is rarely found in a single study. Anyone considering changing or beginning treatment of any kind should consult with a physician.