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(November 16, 2000, Gazette)

Super-rehabilitation focus of stroke research

Scott MacLeod (L), the regional marketing associate for AstraZeneca, and Dr. Dale Corbett.Scott MacLeod (L), the regional marketing associate for AstraZeneca, and Dr. Dale Corbett.

By Sharon Gray

Stroke is the leading cause of permanent disability in Canada and the third most common cause of death. Newfoundland has the highest incidence of stroke in the country, but no specialized hospital unit to deal with these brain attacks.

What we do have is a stoke laboratory in the Faculty of Medicine that is part of the latest National Centre of Excellence and new Canadian Stroke Network. Dr. Dale Corbett is the neuroscientist who runs the laboratory, and he is more than happy to spend time telling people about his work.

On Oct 24 he gave a lunchtime talk at the Fluvarium to invited guests from government, health care organizations, community groups and the university. Dr. Corbett's research has recently changed from looking at how to prevent cell death immediately following a stroke, to looking at how rehabilitation can be improved to help stroke victims recover even long after the actual stroke.

He explained that stroke victims go through a process similar to the development of motor control in young children, including a regression of left brain/right brain dominance. "We need to see what kind of events will rewire the brain. We do know the brain remains plastic and has the capacity for increased recovery if you do the right thing."

Dr. Corbett said what works in a laboratory setting with animals is very intense rehabilitation in which the animal is encouraged to use the impaired limb rather than compensating by using the uninjured limb. "We can improve the deficit up to 50 per cent, but it requires much more time in rehabilitation that is currently being done."

After a stroke, the brain tries to heal itself through an increase in proteins that affect such things as growth and neuronal structure. "We can help the brain heal itself but it may mean a change in the way we do rehabilitation."

Dr. Corbett knows that what he is saying goes against standard treatment for stroke victims, but it's not the first time he's opposed conventional wisdom. For the past 10 years, he has looked into the value of hypothermia, or lowering body temperature, to prevent cell death after stroke -- a technique that was not believed to have a beneficial effect for stroke. But because of the positive results of his basic bio-medical research with laboratory animals, clinical tests are now being done in this area. "I think I've closed the hypothermia chapter of my work, and now it's up to the clinicians."

In response to questions from the audience, some of which dealt with actual cases where a stroke had been misdiagnosed, Dr. Corbett said that physicians are not taught enough about stroke and how to treat it. "It's a brain attack and it's an emergency. In Calgary there's a Stroke Hot Line, and that's the kind of thing we need to work towards, as well as a specialized hospital unit for stroke victims."

Dr. Corbett's talk was part of Health Research Awareness Month, and was sponsored by AstraZeneca.

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