Scientists are planning a large-scale study to prove that inducing hibernation in stroke victims can reduce deaths and prevent long-term disability.
Reducing a patient’s body temperature from 36.8 degrees to between 34 and 35 degrees induces ‘hibernation’ in the brain that helps protect it from damage. A pilot trial has shown that the technique could be as effective as clot-busting drugs in patients who suffer a stroke.
The brain needs the oxygen and nutrients supplied by the blood in order to function properly. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is cut off, and brain cells begin to die, leading to brain damage and possibly death.
Strokes are common in England, affecting over 150,000 people a year. It is the third largest cause of death after heart disease and cancer and the largest cause of adult disability in the UK. People over 65 are most at risk.
Body temperature often increases following a stroke, leading to a poorer recovery. The technique, which works most effectively when used within six hours of a stroke, involves introducing cold saline solution into the veins and putting ice packs on the body.
It is not known exactly how cooling the body reduces injury to the brain.
One theory is that it reduces the amount of oxygen required by the brain, another is that it triggers a defence mechanism in the brain cells.
Pilot studies indicate that the technique works for up to 6 hours after the stroke compared to about 4.5 hours for thrombolysis.
Now, stroke patients from all over the UK will be offered to take part in the £9 million EuroHYP-1 study, which will involve 1,500 patients in 15 European centres. Recruitment will begin in September or October and run until 2017.
Dr Malcolm Macleod, head of experimental neuroscience at the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences at Edinburgh University, said: "Our estimates are that hypothermia might improve the outcome for more than 40,000 Europeans every year."
The study will be watched carefully by the European Space Agency, which is interested in human hibernation as a means for long-haul interplanetary space travel.
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