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Fighting fatigue: Helping stroke survivors live better lives

woman in lab coat smiling

With one of four people to have a stroke in their lifetime, it’s no surprise University of Southern Queensland (UniSQ) biomedical scientist and PhD student Tarynn Potter is determined to improve the lives of stroke survivors.

Her research focuses on post-stroke fatigue, which affects almost 50 per cent of stroke patients and has no evidence-based treatment options.

"Stroke recovery treatment focuses mainly on mobility and functionality rather than obstacles like fatigue, which can have a debilitating effect on stroke survivors’ quality of life," Mrs Potter said.

“It’s not like typical tiredness in that a nap or rest will solve it.

“Post-stroke fatigue can last up to six months if it is acute or can be chronic and last more than two years.

“It’s also associated with increased disability, decreased cognition, delays in returning to the workforce and can limit capacity to engage in rehabilitation to improve mobility.

“Because there are no consistent, evidence-based therapies available for post-stroke fatigue, survivors must often live with this fatigue with the hope that it will eventually resolve itself.

“I’m hoping the research I’m conducting leads to effective treatments for post-stroke fatigue and increases stroke survivors’ ability to engage in rehabilitation and enhance their recovery.”

Working in partnership with stroke clinicians at the Darling Downs Health Service in Toowoomba, Mrs Potter’s research project expands on preliminary work done by her supervisor Dr Prajwal Gyawali, whose research team identified a correlation between perceived stress and fatigue in stroke survivors.

“I am investigating this relationship in more detail to confirm the moderating effect we suspect stress has on fatigue which will identify if we can potentially use stress mitigation techniques to reduce post-stroke fatigue,” she said.

“By measuring stress and fatigue levels over several time points, I will be able to determine if stress directly influences the levels of fatigue being experienced and if stress moderates the relationship between fatigue and quality of life.

“This could potentially open up new targets to reduce post-stroke fatigue by targeting stress.”

Mrs Potter is also looking into the possible causes of post-stroke fatigue.

“A thorough understanding of what causes post-stroke fatigue would enable therapies that directly target the causes of fatigue,” she said.

“We are working to identify circulating microRNAs in stroke survivors that correlate to post-stroke fatigue to identify the cellular mechanisms behind post-stroke fatigue.

“microRNAs are small regions of RNA that directly influence gene expression, influencing the amount and types of proteins made by the body.

“As proteins are responsible for many functions, including immunity, tissue repair, generation of energy and production of hormones, understanding the changes in protein production following stroke could provide a clear cellular mechanism that causes post-stroke fatigue.

“This level of understanding can also highlight therapies that directly influence and override the mechanisms behind post-stroke fatigue, resulting in effective treatment.”

Like many researchers, contributing to breakthrough developments in stroke research has personal meaning for Mrs Potter.

“I have had several family members with a history of stroke. The most polarising for me was the collapse of my uncle from a stroke at age 52 when he was on a work site,” she said.

“His stroke resulted in significant disability and the demise of his stout independence for the remainder of his life until his passing last year.

“This was particularly shocking for my family.

“Many Australian families are affected by stroke. In fact, every 19 minutes, someone in Australia will suffer a new stroke.

“With the prevalence of stroke increasing, and the age of those afflicted with stroke decreasing, it’s imperative now more than ever that we improve stroke recovery care and help to support stroke survivors with the ill effects of stroke.”

Anyone interested in Mrs Potter’s research can learn more when she presents at the Improving the Lives we Save session of the Pint of Science Festival in Brisbane on May 22.