- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2004


Mickey Poduje had been out all day with her husband, Noel, on their 32-foot motorboat off the Massachusetts coast. When they returned to the dock, she climbed out to secure the lines. Then she collapsed.

It was a stroke. A blood vessel had burst in the 50-year-old woman’s brain, paralyzing her right side and leaving her mute at first. At the rehabilitation hospital, she said “when … when … when” over and over.

Six months later, Mrs. Poduje could say a few words, but doctors said her speech wouldn’t get much better.

They were wrong. Six years after that day at the dock in 1996, Mrs. Poduje entered a Boston laboratory and had a metal device the shape of a figure-8 pressed to her right temple. It sent magnetic pulses into her brain. And the result, published just this year, is that her speech did improve slightly.

It’s one of a handful of recent experiments in stroke patients that sound like the fantastic promises of an old traveling medicine show. Improving speech by zapping the brain with magnetism? Making weakened limbs work better by putting coils on the head and releasing current so weak that it could come from a battery?

Those ideas have spurred interest in a handful of laboratories in the United States and abroad. The few preliminary results produced so far are not cures. They are more intriguing than life-changing. But scientists hope that with further refinement the techniques could provide new tools for treating strokes, which attack about 700,000 Americans a year.

Take the magnetic approach, called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation or rTMS, which involves sending tightly focused magnetic pulses into the brain.

“A lot of us believe that this is really going to be a turning point in intervention in neuroscience,” said Dr. Randall Benson of Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center.

Although doctors already have shown that implanting electrodes in the brain to deliver stimulation can help control tremors, he said, rTMS offers a way to stimulate brain circuits without surgery.

Dr. Benson is starting a study of using the magnetic stimulation to improve stroke-related language impairment, but in a different way from the approach tested with Mrs. Poduje. British researchers, meanwhile, are beginning studies to see whether it can help stroke patients overcome problems with swallowing or using a weakened and clumsy hand.

Mrs. Poduje’s problem, called nonfluent aphasia, shows up to some extent in more than a third of stroke patients, although most recover to some degree. Their speech is hesitant, broken up and poorly articulated.

Mrs. Poduje, 59, said in a brief telephone interview recently at her home in Needham Heights, Mass., that the treatment helped her. Asked whether it was easier to remember words, she replied, “Little.”

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