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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Science Note/Saved By a Whisker

Air Date: Week of

(Photo: Flickr CC Tomi Tapio)

Scientists recently showed that it’s possible to prevent strokes in rats by stimulating a single whisker for four minutes. As Amanda Martinez reports, if humans respond similarly, future stroke treatment could be as simple as massaging one’s fingertips.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. In just a few minutes, a failed experiment and an accidental discovery that could revolutionize our understanding of genetics. But first, this Note on Emerging Science from Amanda Martinez.


MARTINEZ: When a person has a stroke, every second counts. A blood clot stuck in a major artery is most often to blame. It prevents blood and oxygen from reaching the brain and cells begin to starve and die. If doctors or EMTs can’t loosen the clot quickly, brain damage becomes permanent.

(Photo: Flickr CC Tapio Flickr)

At the moment, the only way to treat a stroke is to give the victim blood thinners that break the clot apart. But new science suggests that in the future, treatment could be as simple as getting a massage.

Scientists at the University of California Irvine recently showed that it’s possible to prevent stroke damage in rats by stimulating a single whisker. The method was 100 percent effective, but had to be performed within two hours of blockage in the rat’s artery to work.

Researchers found that stimulating a lone whisker for four minutes activated the blood-deprived region of the rat’s brain. The demand for blood became so great, it caused alternate arteries to retrieve blood pooled within the clogged artery and re-route it. Imagine a crowded theater full of people trying to escape. Instead of throwing themselves at a single locked door, they suddenly find four emergency exits.

But of course, rats aren’t humans and we don’t have sensitive whiskers, so the question remains as to whether the technique could work for us. The good news, researchers say, is that our lips and fingertips serve the same essential purpose as a rat’s facial sensors. And given how dangerous and debilitating strokes can be, they believe a non-invasive, cheap, potential fix such as this might well be worth a shot.

And that’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Amanda Martinez.




Read the research paper published in PLoS ONE


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