May 2 - Up to 20 years after suffering a stroke, patients in Israel are reporting remarkable improvements in brain function with calibrated oxygen treatments inside hyperbaric chambers. While treating stroke patients with hyperbaric oxygen is nothing new, the fact that it can be effective after so many years is an exciting new development according to specialists at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center. Jim Drury went to see the therapy demonstrated.
Dr Shai Efrati monitors a patient inside his hyperbaric oxygen chamber. Efrati's team say that by repeatedly exposing patients to concentrated levels of oxygen, they can reinvigorate dormant neurons up to two decades after injury in areas of the brain previously considered untreatable. SOUNDBITE (English) DR SHAI EFRATI, HEAD OF HYPERBARIC UNIT AND HEAD OF RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT OF HOSPITAL, SAYING: "The cells in this location have unaerobic metabolism. It means that the cell has enough energy to stay alive but it doesn't have the energy needed for the action potential, for the full activity, and this is where the hyperbaric can help." Hyperbaric oxygen therapy - or HBOT - has been in use since the Sixties. But Efrati is now treating 'metabolically dysfunctional' brain regions, previously assumed to be permanently damaged. Neurons with insufficient energy to fire electrical signals are targeted with a tenfold increase of oxygen levels in the body. SOUNDBITE (English) DR SHAI EFRATI, HEAD OF HYPERBARIC UNIT AND HEAD OF RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT OF HOSPITAL, SAYING: "With the hyperbaric therapy when the metabolic function is being regained in this area the patient can speak again, and if it's the motor area of the hand then the hand will start moving years after the acute injury, which is something that was unbelievable to me. I have been taught in medical school that such neuroplasticity so late after the acute injury cannot happen, but we see it." Before her HBOT treatment University lecturer Shir Daphna-Tekoah had made no recovery four years after a train crash left her brain-damaged and unable to work. SOUNDBITE (English) SHIR DAPHNA-TEKOAH, TRAUMATIC HEAD INJURY SUFFERER, SAYING: "I was quite an intellectual person and all of a sudden I couldn't read, I couldn't remember what I'm saying....I had a traumatic brain injury, and I entered the treatment for traumatic brain injury and it was amazing, it was a miracle." Efrati and collaborators from Tel Aviv University treated around 70 post stroke patients in a 'metabolic dysfunction' study. One was Kibbutz co-ordinator Irit Baruch whose catastrophic brain aneuriysm left her unable to talk or walk unaided. After treatment she says her condition improved rapidly. SOUNDBITE (Hebrew) IRIT BARUCH, PATIENT, SAYING: "In the beginning I couldn't walk. Now I can walk, maybe not in the best manner, but it's getting better. In the beginning I couldn't focus on reading, but now I can read. My speech is also more understandable." Efrati thinks his HBOT adaptation could help vast numbers of stroke patients who might believe it's too late for further treatment. If diagnosed early enough, he says Alzheimer's and vascular dementia sufferers could also see their symptoms improve, with targeted hyberbaric oxygen treatment designed to breath new life into damaged cells.