Future drug may help rewire the brain after stroke

Professor of molecular and cell biology at Harvard University, Takao Hensch suggested: 

“The baseline of the brain is plastic, to rewire itself. Through evolution it is necessary to layer on brake-like factors to prevent too much rewiring from happening after a certain point,” he said. “This offers novel therapeutic possibilities. If we could judiciously lift the brakes later in life perhaps we could reopen this window.”

Currently, Hensch’s research has uncovered that drugs routinely used for mood disorders may show potential to increase brain plasticity in adults. Previous research of his has shown that a bipolar disorder drugs, valproate, regain the ability to learn perfect pitch.

However, he also warned that altering the brain’s ability to change in an adult could be cause for caution:

“We have to consider though that the brain is well formed by then [adulthood] and has passed through its own critical period. The starting point is quite different. We worry a lot about translating these results to humans. What would it mean to reopen the critical period a second time? Would we be wiping out your identity, who you’d become through all those years of development?”

Nick Ward, professor of clinical neurology and neurorehabilitation at University College London, also added:

“Relatively well-recovered adult stroke patients tend to have different activity patterns compared with healthy people. Other parts of the language network might be used to support language recovery.”

Research suggests that a stroke can increase brain plasticity in adults for a few months, which means that timely rehabilitation is key.

Ward added:

“Drugs that keep the window open longer or reopen it would be good too. It’s just that at the moment, services are being slashed and so the ‘dose’ of rehab is so low, no drug is going to help – doubling the effect of not very much rehab still gives you not very much rehab.”

Ward also noted that it is thought, from animal models, that the stroke itself can increase brain plasticity in adults for a few months, meaning that timely rehabilitation and training are key.

“Drugs that keep the window open longer or reopen it would be good too,” said Ward. “It’s just that at the moment, services are being slashed and so the ‘dose’ of rehab is so low, no drug is going to help – doubling the effect of not very much rehab still gives you not very much rehab.”


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