as a physical Shanghai-based therapist Wang is working with stroke survivors whose brains have been damaged by lack of oxygen. They usually follow a predictable recovery pattern, making great progress in the first few visits and then hitting a wall. Patients ask when they will feel normal, and Wang tells them that they will get better over time. “But really,” he recalls, “I knew in my gut that no matter how hard we tried, they weren’t going to improve much.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Marc Dalecki, then an associate professor in the Louisiana State University (LSU) College of Kinesiology, had been thinking about oxygen. Dalecki, who spent much of his early career studying scuba diving, remembers divers using oxygen nasal cannulae to help with everything from hypoxia to headaches. He has long wondered whether this simple treatment could help neurotic patients recover. “I promised myself that when I have my own research lab, I’ll work on it,” he said.
Because of its relatively small size, the brain uses a staggering amount of energy: 20 to 30 percent of the body’s energy at rest. To power all its neurons, the brain relies on oxygen. When someone has a stroke or a head injury, the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain is disrupted. Due to the lack of oxygen, brain tissue is damaged, leading to problems with memory, speech, strength and motor control.
Rehabilitation from a traumatic brain injury often involves working with a physical therapist to relearn motor skills and develop the strength and coordination needed for everyday activities such as making coffee, writing and brushing teeth. Many physical therapists already use high-tech devices to help patients recover more quickly, from robots that move damaged limbs to virtual reality games that simulate everyday life that cannot be easily replicated in a hospital setting. But both Wang and Daliki wondered whether oxygen could be the simple, cheap, convenient supplement for neurorehabilitation they’d been looking for. They figured that if they could give patients a little extra oxygen during early exercise rehabilitation, it might help them relearn old skills more quickly.
The two joined forces in Dalecki’s lab at LSU, where Wang, frustrated as a clinician, decided to pursue a doctorate in kinesiology.In a study published last week Frontiers in Neuroscience, Their team showed that sniffing pure oxygen while learning a challenging motor task can help healthy young adults learn faster and perform better. They think this relatively low-cost, low-risk idea could be used to speed up stroke recovery.
For their study, they recruited 40 healthy young adults, each of whom sat at a desk wearing a nasal cannula. Their instructions are simple: place the stylus in the center of the tablet screen, then drag it to a pop-up target elsewhere, as quickly and efficiently as possible.But after a few trials, the relationship between the stylus and the screen changed, resulting in a 60-degree difference between the participants’ lines idea They draw the lines that actually appear on the screen. As the volunteers adjusted the line drawing to these new, more challenging environments, air began to flow through the cannula. Half of the participants got pure oxygen, while the other half got medical air (essentially an ultra-clean version of regular air). It’s a quick blast, just in those first few minutes of learning. Then the airflow shuts off and the screen returns to normal.