Doctors are rethinking their approach to stroke treatment thanks to new research showing that inflammation in the brain post-stroke may help rather than harm recovery.

During a stroke, blood flow to a portion of the brain is cut off, depriving brain cells in that area of oxygen. The body responds by flooding the area with white blood cells, resulting in inflammation. Until now, doctors believed this inflammation was harmful to the brain. Thus, one of the key components of post-stroke care was to reduce this inflammation.

But a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, led by scientists from Lund University in Sweden, has found that inflammation might actually help rather than hinder a patient's recovery. “This is in total contrast to our previous beliefs,” says study researcher Professor Zaal Kokaia, in a university press release.

Kokaia and his team looked at the immune system cells the body was sending to the brain during inflammation. These specific cells, called monocytes, flood the area of the brain that has been damaged during a stroke. Researchers found the monocytes that help repair the brain in the days and weeks following a stroke. In the lab, the researchers evaluated mice with stroke-like symptoms and found that when the brain of the mouse was flooded with monocytes, the mouse recovered better than the mice that had monocytes removed.

"This is no less than a paradigm shift within research, as inflammation has in many instances been seen as a purely negative phenomenon that should be combatted using any means available, said another key researcher in the project, Dr. Olle Lindvall, professor of Clinical Neurology at University Hospital, Lund. "We now realise that this view is much too simplistic."

Now, instead of reducing inflammation, researchers are looking at ways to flood the brain with even more monocytes after a stroke to help heal damaged areas.

In the United States, stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death and the leading cause of adult disability. This new research may help change those numbers by giving stroke patients a better shot at recovery.