"A stroke is like an earthquake," said Dr. Yang, Associate Professor of Pharmacology and Neuroscience at UNTHSC. "It triggers a lot of other problems downstream."
Brain damage, loss of motor function and long-term disability are among the problems suffered by more than 800,000 stroke patients each year. About 25 percent to 30 percent of stroke survivors develop dementia, often within the first year of recovery. Having a stroke doubles the risk of developing dementia.
Dr. Yang, who recently received a $1.6 million grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, hopes to improve the long-term outlook for stroke patients by studying how a specific molecule called a neuroglobin makes the brain less susceptible to stroke.
Studies have shown that an increase in neoglobin in the brain leads to less damage in an ischemic stroke, which occurs when an artery to the brain is block and accounts for 88 percent of all strokes.
"We believe that this molecule plays a major role in brain metabolism," he said. "By manipulating this molecule, we hope to find new treatments that could slow down or prevent dementia and other functional deficits following a stroke."
Over the last two decades, the treatment for ischemic stroke has improved with the delivery of the drug tPA. It is the only drug approved to dissolve blood clots that cause most strokes. But tPA must be administered intravenously and only works if given within three hours after the onset of stroke symptoms.
"Few patients get to the hospital in time to qualify for the drug," Dr. Yang said.
Patients are often disqualified from receiving the drug because they delayed going to the hospital or failed to recognize the symptoms of a stroke.
As part of Dr. Yang's research, he is trying to identify a neuropathway that may prevent or at least provide protection against both the primary and secondary brain damage triggered by a stroke.
"If we can identify the pathway, we can develop new drugs to treat strokes and improve recovery," he said. "Our hope then is to expand treatment to other diseases."
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