Elderly people could soon be treated with an electrical device that sends impulses into their ear as a way of preventing age-related health conditions. Scientists at the University of Leeds have discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve in this way could provide a variety of health benefits.
The vagus nerve is one of the largest found in the body and can be accessed by an electrical current through the skin on the side of the head. This then kickstarts the resting nervous system and a number of important digestive processes that are known to weaken naturally as an individual ages.
Among the benefits the researchers believe this form of therapy could have are reducing the risk of high blood pressure; decreasing cases of heart disease; and preventing irregular heartbeats. Their results showed that as little as 15 minutes a day could provide the desired effects in the over-55s.
Known as the transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS), the technique was trialled on 29 volunteers. All of the subjects had increased activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for heart rate and the digestive system.
Anecdotal evidence supplied by the volunteers also revealed tVNS can help with tackling sleep and mental health issues too. All of these factors could add up to a better quality of life during a period that often sees people start to feel their bodies slowing down.
Dr Beatrice Bretherton, from the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Leeds, was the lead author of the study. She 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.”
In younger people, the nervous system tends to be evenly balanced between the fight and flight response, and the rest and digest state. These are called the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, respectively.
However, as individuals age the sympathetic nervous system becomes more dominant, leading to less effective digestive processes and issues with the heart. Treating the vagus nerve with tVNS can help to restore the balance between these two elements of the nervous system.
Dr Susan Deuchars, another 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 tVNS can benefit multiple disorders.”
While the researchers obtained positive results from this study, it was conducted over just two weeks. It has paved the way for longer trials, which could offer a lot more insight into the potential uses for the therapy. In the future, tVNS could be rolled out to many people as they age and improve the health of the general population.