Of all the illnesses that one might have to face throughout life, one of the most frightening is that of experiencing a stroke, where a circulatory problem in the brain delivers either too much or too little blood flow to a given region, resulting in impairment in that part of the brain. The effects can be life-changing, resulting in the loss of various functions in the patient, including impairment of vision, speech, and motor functions. However, a new study from Stanford University may be offering researchers a new glimpse into how the brain heals itself, using a stem cell therapy that triggered profound healing effects in its patients, including giving one formerly wheelchair-bound individual the ability to walk again.

In the experiment, conducted by the Stanford University School of Medicine, stem cells were injected into the stroke-damaged areas of the brains of 18 subjects — an otherwise fairly simple procedure as neurosurgery goes. Each of the subjects had passed the six-month mark, where few, if any, improvements are seen in response to traditional therapies for their conditions, with some of the patients having suffered their strokes three to five years before the experiment was conducted. The patients were tested at one, six and twelve months following the surgery, using both brain scans and tests used to gauge motor function, speech, and vision.

The results floored the researchers: 7 out of the 18 subjects showed significant improvements in their abilities following the treatment. “Their recovery was not just a minimal recovery like someone who couldn’t move a thumb now being able to wiggle it. It was much more meaningful. One 71-year-old wheelchair-bound patient was walking again,” says Gary Steinberg, Stanford’s chair of neurosurgery, and head of the study.

Steinberg says that their study doesn’t support the idea that the stem cells grow into new neurons, as was previously presumed, but it appears that the injections trigger another biochemical process in the brain that enhances the brain’s ability to heal itself. “A theory is that they turn the adult brain into the neonatal brain that recovers well,” Steinberg explains.

Experts in the field caution that there is still a great deal of work to be done in this field, given the comparatively small number of subjects involved in the initial study, and that there are many questions to be answered regarding the nature of the effect seen in the experiment: was the healing prompted by the stem cells, or caused by conducting the procedure itself? Was it a placebo effect? Regardless, Steinberg is optimistic about the implications being made by their findings.

“There is certainly reason to be enthusiastic based on the magnitude of responses from these patients.”