James Simpkins on Stroke

Dana Alliance member James Simpkins, Ph.D., is working on novel treatments that could limit the damage and/or improve recovery from stroke. As a professor and the director of the Center for Basic & Translational Stroke Research at West Virginia University, he operates in a state that has a high rate of stroke. In recognition of Stroke Awareness Month, we asked Simpkins a few questions.james simpkins wvu

Why does West Virginia have a high incidence of stroke?

West Virginians have a very sedate lifestyle. They rank 49th nationally, per person, in exercise. They have a comparatively poor diet, high smoking and drinking rates, and rank in the bottom four or five in states in obesity, heart disease, hypertension, etc.

Also, the folks who show up to a hospital with a stroke often have really severe strokes, likely in part because of the geography of West Virginia. We’re completely within Appalachia, so it’s not uncommon for a 40-mile trip from a person’s home to a hospital to take an hour and a half or two hours. That puts those people close to if not outside the window for tissue plasminogen activator treatment.

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Preventing and Treating Strokes

If I asked you what happens if you have a “brain attack,” what would you say? Louis Caplan, a stroke expert, did just that to see how people viewed stroke; he used the term brain attack because it is similar to heart attack, and “transient ischemic attack” is a mouthful. Ask people what happens during a heart attack, Caplan says, and they’ll describe a bad chest pain. They associate cancer with a lump or bleeding. But ask people about a brain attack and they’ll say one of four things: you go crazy; you go unconscious; you have a seizure; you become stupid.

“But they don’t tell you that you can lose vision in one eye or your hand may go weak,” Caplan says. “We don’t think of the brain as controlling the puppet strings. If people have weakness or numbness in the hand they think of it as a problem in the hand.”

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