An electrical current applied to a stroke patient’s brain can improve and speed up the rehabilitation process, a new study suggests.

The study from the University of Oxford in the U.K., published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, found greater improvements in the movements of stroke patients who received electrical brain stimulation over nine days.

Researchers used what’s called transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), which involves passing a very low electrical current -- a tiny fraction of what goes through a lightbulb -- through a patient’s brain.

The study involved 24 patients. Half of them received 20 minutes of TDCS for nine days, in addition to standard physical therapy. The other half received a placebo treatment along with physiotherapy.

Three months later, those who had the electrical brain stimulation showed greater improvement in their movements than those who only received physiotherapy.

“The improvements were significant and made quite a difference to our patients, who were able to cut up a steak for the first time or peel a banana for the first time,” Dr. Charlotte Stagg, one of the co-authors of the study and a researcher at the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, told CTV News.

While the results are “very exciting,” Stagg said this was a small study and it needs to be repeated in a larger group of people.

Brain scans conducted during the study suggested that the electrical currents may help regenerate brain cells. That’s exciting news for researchers in Montreal, where doctors are testing a similar approach.

Dr. Alexander Thiel, director of the Comprehensive Stroke Centre at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, said the TDCS treatments have been studied before, but what’s special about the study out of Oxford is that it suggests the treatment may be causing structural changes in the brain that contribute to the patient’s recovery.

“This is important because it could either indicate that some parts of these nerve cells are able to regenerate, or these nerve cells try to form alternative pathways  to reroute the traffic in the brain to a different route  from the one that has been destroyed by the stroke,” he told CTV News. 

Stroke patients in Canada can't get TDCS therapy outside of a research study. But with several studies underway around the world, scientists hope they'll be able to quickly confirm that brain stimulation has the power to accelerate stroke recovery.

With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip