Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study indicating that a daily dose of vitamin E may combat functional decline from Alzheimer's disease. Now, a new study suggests the vitamin may help prevent or reduce brain damage during stroke.

Stroke occurs when an artery or blood vessel is blocked by clots or fatty build-ups, restricting blood flow to the brain. This deprives the brain of oxygen, which leads to brain cell death. Every year, around 15 million people worldwide have a stroke. Of these, 5 million are left permanently disabled.

After a stroke, a patient is usually treated with aspirin - an antiplatelet that works to stop the blood from clotting. In around 4% of stroke cases, patients are treated with tissue plasminogen activators - the only drug specific to stroke approved by the Food and Drug Administration - within 3 hours of the attack. This works by dissolving blood clots, therefore improving blood flow to the brain.

Study leader Dr. Cameron Rink, of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says it is "frustrating" that after 25 years of research and testing of more than 1,000 experimental neuroprotective drugs, there is no treatment available to patients to prevent stroke, rather than simply treat symptoms in the aftermath.

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In animal studies, researchers found that tocotrienol supplements - a type of vitamin E - offers a "collateral" blood supply during stroke.

That is why, over the past 12 years, Dr. Rink has focused his research on finding such preventative treatment, and his latest study could be the most promising yet.

Tocotrienol improves blood supply

To reach their findings, Dr. Rink and colleagues conducted a series of animal studies that looked at the effects of tocotrienol supplements on blood vessels during stroke. Tocotrienol is a type of vitamin E found naturally in palm oil, which can block cholesterol production in the liver and reduce total blood cholesterol.

After 10 weeks' worth of supplementation with the vitamin, the team found that it activated arteriogenesis - an increase in the diameter of existing arteries in response to oxygen demand. This process can prevent brain damage, as it effectively offers a "collateral" blood supply.

Commenting on the team's findings, Dr. Rink says:

"We know that people who have good collaterals have better recovery from strokes. We think that tocotrienol helps improve the function of collaterals, which would offer someone better protection from an initial or secondary stroke."

To investigate exactly how vitamin E activates arteriogenesis, Dr. Rink has created a laser capture microdissection method. This allows him to analyze minute pieces of brain tissue and blood vessels from exact areas where arteriogenesis occurs during stroke.

Using this technique, Dr. Rink can also analyze the activity of micro-RNAs during stroke. These are small pieces of non-coding DNA that switch off the production of proteins created by genes, therefore stopping the proteins from communicating with other cells. This may lead to an understanding of how tocotrienol influences genes during stroke.

At present, Dr. Rink is conducting a study of tocotrienol in stroke survivors to see if the vitamin may prevent or reduce brain damage from secondary strokes, which he notes can be more disabling than an initial stroke.

He concludes that one day, just like aspirin is recommended for cardiac patients, vitamin E may be used as a common treatment for stroke prevention.

May is National Stroke Awareness Month. In line with this campaign, Medical News Today have compiled a spotlight feature looking at the risks and warning signs of stroke and what is being done to increase awareness.