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Study: Electrical Nerve Stimulation Improves Health

a gray haired man points to his left ear with his left index finger
(Christophe Gateau/AP)

Monday, 05 August 2019 09:55 AM

A small electric "tickle" to the ear might affect the body's nervous system, and British researchers claim this can promote overall well-being and might potentially slow down some effects of aging.

The tickle treatment is called transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS). The procedure involves placing custom-made clips containing electrodes on the part of your ear called the tragus; that is the small, pointed tip above your ear lobe.

A small electrical current is delivered through the clips to affect the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is part of the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for body functions you do not think about, like blood pressure, temperature, and heart rhythm.

The study authors suggest the device might help balance the autonomic system.

"We saw that just two weeks of daily tVNS helped to re-balance the levels of activity in the two branches of the autonomic nervous system," said Susan Deuchars, one of the study's authors. She is director of research in the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Leeds in England.

"These branches normally work in balance to allow healthy levels of activity. As we age – and also in certain clinical conditions – this balance changes so that the sympathetic branch predominates and this can be detrimental for health. tVNS daily seems to redress the balance of this activity toward that associated with healthy function," she said.

The researchers suggest the treatment can improve mental well-being and sleeping patterns. The study authors noted it could have a role in the treatment or diagnosis of heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer's disease, and type 2 diabetes.

However, not everyone is convinced a simple, non-invasive procedure might have such wide-ranging health effects.

Dr. David Knopman, a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology and professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said this study did not provide evidence to support any claims of health benefits.

"The sample sizes are small. The studies were poorly controlled. I would question the claims about efficacy," he said.

The researchers explained it is difficult to have a control group, because people can feel that they are not receiving the treatment.

Three small studies were conducted. The first two looked at a single session of tVNS. The third was a two-week study of daily treatments for 15 minutes a day.

All of the study participants were aged 55 or older. None had any evidence of heart disease.

The first study had 14 volunteers. The second study included those volunteers along with 37 more, for a total of 51. The two-week trial had 29 volunteers. All three groups had average ages in their mid- to late-60s.

Deuchars said researchers did not see any risks from the treatment and it is easy to use. Study volunteers were trained to use the device at home.

She noted the cost would likely be reasonable, and the device could possibly be available over the counter.

For now, Deuchars said, further study is planned. The researchers hope to include more people, and study use of the device for longer periods of time.

The report was published July 30 in the journal Aging.

© HealthDay

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A small electric "tickle" to the ear might affect the body's nervous system, and British researchers claim this can promote overall well-being and might potentially slow down some effects of aging.
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Monday, 05 August 2019 09:55 AM
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