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Nerve stimulation slows ageing

August 2019

Ear with equipment attached
Picture courtesy leeds.ac.uk

Scientists have found that “tickling” the ear with a small electrical current can slow down the effects of ageing.

It is not as far fetched as it sounds but it is a bit complex.  To put it simply, the new therapy is centred on our vagus nerve. This nerve is incredibly important. It is one of the cranial nerves that connects our brain to our body and oversees a vast range of crucial functions that don’t require conscious thought, such as digestion, breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.

This nerve contains two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch helps the body prepare for high intensity ‘fight or flight’ activity, whilst the parasympathetic is crucial to low intensity ‘rest and digest’ activity.

In a health person, these two branches work against each other to maintain a healthy balance of activity.  As we get older, the balance goes awry and it is thought this imbalance can lead to all sorts of problems.

New research carried out at the University of Leeds shows that “tickling” the outer ear with a small electrical current stimulates the vagus nerve to send additional signals to the body’s autonomic nervous system. This appears to rebalance the autonomic nervous system in older people, potentially helping to slow down some of the effects of ageing.

The study at the University of Leeds involved 29 healthy volunteers all aged 55 or above, and giving each of them a 15 minutes application of a carefully controlled and painless electrical current to the ear every day for two weeks. 

Some participants said they felt nothing, others said they felt a slight tickling to the ear. Overall, the treatment was completely painless.

The short daily therapy is reported to have led to a rebalancing of the autonomic function, with patients experiencing various improvements in their overall wellbeing including improvements in mental health and sleeping patterns. The researchers found that individuals who displayed the greatest imbalance at the start of the study experienced the most pronounced improvements after receiving the therapy.

Dr Susan Deuchars, one of the senior authors on the study, said: “We believe this stimulation can make a big difference to people’s lives, and we’re now hoping to conduct further studies to see if transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) can benefit multiple disorders.”

Fellow lead author, Dr Beatrice Bretherton, from the Leeds School of Biomedical Sciences, said: “The ear is like a gateway through which we can tinker with the body’s metabolic balance, without the need for medication or invasive procedures. We believe these results are just the tip of the iceberg.

“We are excited to investigate further into the effects and potential long-term benefits of daily ear stimulation, as we have seen a great response to the treatment so far,” she added.

In recent years many studies by clinicians over the world have been looking at the potential for using electrical currents to influence the nervous system and further research is now being undertaken on this ear tickling procedure.

For more information on this, a paper in the journal Aging called Effects of transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation is available on line at:
https://doi.org/10.18632/aging.102074


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