The study has been published in Stroke.
The scientists say their work lends support to other evidence that ginkgo biloba triggers a cascade of events that neutralizes free radicals known to cause cell death.
"It's still a large leap from rodent brains to human brains but these results strongly suggest that further research into the protective effects of ginkgo is warranted," says lead researcher Sylvain Dore, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine.
"If further work confirms what we've seen, we could theoretically recommend a daily regimen of ginkgo to people at high risk of stroke as a preventive measure against brain damage," the expert added.
In the study, researchers gave ginkgo biloba EGb 761 - a lab-quality form of the extract - to normal mice and HO-1 knockout mice, mice lacking the gene that produces the enzyme heme oxygenase-1(HO-1).
HO-1 breaks down heme, a common iron molecule found in blood, into carbon monoxide, iron and biliverdin. HO-1 has been shown to act as an antioxidant and have a protective effect against inflammation in animal models.
Dore and his team gave 100 milligrams per kilogram of EGb 761 extract orally once daily for seven days before inducing stroke in the mice by briefly blocking an artery to one side of the brain.
After stroke induction, the mice were tested for brain function and brain damage. One such test, for example, involves running patterns, another tests reaction to an external stimulus. Similar tests were conducted on mice that did not receive the ginkgo extract.
Neurobehavioral function was evaluated before the study and at 1, 2 and 22 hours after stroke using a four-point scale: (1) no deficit, (2) forelimb weakness, (3) inability to bear weight on the affected side, (4) no spontaneous motor activity.
Results showed that normal mice that were pretreated had 50.9 percent less neurological dysfunction and 48.2 percent smaller areas of brain damage than untreated mice.
hese positive effects did not exist in the HO-1 knockout mice.
"Our results suggest that some element or elements in ginkgo actually protect brain cells during stroke," says Dore.