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U of A research helps young stroke patients develop motor skills

EDMONTON- An average of one in every 1,000 babies suffers a perinatal stroke- a stroke before birth, or shortly after. Those children often have difficulty walking and developing other motor skills. But research being done at the University of Alberta could be changing that.

Monica Gorassini and Jaynie Yang from the U of A’s Centre for Neuroscience are launching a provincial study, to determine how intense physical therapy at a young age could help babies who suffered strokes.

“We’re trying to understand how the brain is changing and how the spinal circuits are changing in response to the therapy,” said Gorassini.

The study comes after positive results were found in a smaller pilot project involving just five children.

Among those children was Alesandra Delgado, who suffered a stroke within minutes of being born. Alesandra has a twin brother, Miguel. By the time the siblings were one year old, Miguel was beginning to walk, but Alesandra wasn’t even crawling.

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“She would sit and she would scoot on her bum a little bit, but not too much. She didn’t really try to stand on her own. We always had to help her with that,” her mother Rhina Delgado explained.

“I would watch her at home just watching her brother doing things and you could tell that she just wanted to join him and wanted to be doing the same thing.”

Rhina enrolled her daughter in the pilot project, which tested five children under the age of two. Each child went through physical therapy for about an hour a day, four days a week, for three months.

“All five kids showed huge responses,” said Yang. “None of them were walking independently at the beginning and a number of them became independent walkers during the trial.”

“The improvements are just amazing. Their walking is very symmetrical,” added Gorassini

The research duo believes the earlier children receive treatment, the better.

“We think that there is a critical period for motor development- so development of walking, development of movements- and we think it’s very early in life,” explained Yang.

“The brain has an environment around it that as you get it older, it makes it less and less plastic, so less modifiable to change,” added Gorassini.

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Currently, pediatric stroke patients receive physical therapy once every two to four weeks. Yang and Gorassini believe more frequent therapy sessions will make a huge difference in those patients’ lives, and Rhina agrees.

“I know, just in my own experience with stroke and other neurological conditions that the earlier interventions that you can have, the better the outcomes are,” explained the occupational therapist.

She’s noticed a huge difference in her daughter, and hopes the same for other children.

“She’s trying to climb onto stairs and she’s running down hills…she was all over the place.”

“She just seemed really happy and she was giving herself applause and she’s very excited,” Rhina said, holding back tears of joy. “She’s just doing great, she’s doing awesome. It’s good to see her out there doing everything that her brother does and not holding back.”

Yang and Gorassini have just received $1.1 million to launch a larger province-wide study. They’re looking for 60 children under age three who suffered a stroke within the first month of life.

With files from Su-Ling Goh. 

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