Background: Regenerative strategies of stem cell grafting have been demonstrated to be effective in animal models of stroke. In those studies, the effectiveness of stem cells promoting functional recovery was assessed by behavioral testing. These behavioral studies do, however, not provide access to the understanding of the mechanisms underlying the observed functional outcome improvement.
Methodology/principal findings: In order to address the underlying mechanisms of stem cell mediated functional improvement, this functional improvement after stroke in the rat was investigated for six months after stroke by use of fMRI, somatosensory evoked potentials by electrophysiology, and sensorimotor behavior testing. Stem cells were grafted ipsilateral to the ischemic lesion. Rigorous exclusion of spontaneous recovery as confounding factor permitted to observe graft-related functional improvement beginning after 7 weeks and continuously increasing during the 6-month observation period. The major findings were i) functional improvement causally related to the stem cells grafting; ii) tissue replacement can be excluded as dominant factor for stem cell mediated functional improvement; iii) functional improvement occurs by exclusive restitution of the function in the original representation field, without clear contributions from reorganization processes, and iv) stem cells were not detectable any longer after six months.
Conclusions/significance: A delayed functional improvement due to stem cell implantation has been documented by electrophysiology, fMRI and behavioral testing. This functional improvement occurred without cells acting as a tissue replacement for the necrotic tissue after the ischemic event. Combination of disappearance of grafted cells after six months on histological sections with persistent functional recovery was interpreted as paracrine effects by the grafted stem cells being the dominant mechanism of cell activity underlying the observed functional restitution of the original activation sites. Future studies will have to investigate whether the stem cell mediated improvement reactivates the original representation target field by using original connectivity pathways or by generating/activating new ones for the stimulus.