Tickling the ear with a small electrical current has been found to apparently rebalance the autonomic nervous system for people over-55, potentially slowing down chronic diseases associated with ageing.
Researchers from the University of Leeds, in a small study, found that a short daily session of transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation, delivered for a fortnight, “led to both physiological and wellbeing improvements, including a better quality of life, mood and sleep”.
The therapy delivers a small, painless electrical current to the ear, which sends signals to the body’s nervous system through the vagus nerve. Some people experience the stimulation as a tickle, others feel nothing at all.
Those in the worst shape showed most improvement
In perhaps the most significant finding, test subjects whose autonomic nervous system was the most out of whack benefited most from the therapy.
“Such autonomic changes can be detrimental to heart function, emotion, mood and gut function, and may play a role in a range of conditions that increase in prevalence with ageing, including heart failure, hypertension and depression,” the researchers write.
These conditions are generally treated with medication and represent an accumulating loss in quality of life.
The researchers, however, suggest the tickling therapy “could help protect people from chronic diseases, which we become more prone to as we get older, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and atrial fibrillation.”
What’s the autonomic nervous system?
The autonomic nervous system controls many of the body’s functions that occur automatically and serve to keep us alive – such as digestion, breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.
There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, which work against each other to maintain a healthy balance of activity.
The sympathetic branch helps the body prepare for high intensity fight-or-flight activity by increasing alertness, energy, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate.
The parasympathetic branch is crucial to low intensity rest-and-digest activity. It works to decrease alertness, blood pressure, and heart rate, and promotes calmness, relaxation, and digestion.
As we age, and when we are fighting diseases, the sympathetic branch begins to dominate and becomes more active. This imbalance makes us more susceptible to disease and a breakdown of healthy bodily function.
Where does the vagus nerve fit in?
The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves, and wanders from the brain through the neck, the heart and lungs, and the abdomen. Its functions are many and astonishingly varied.
It provides taste sensation behind the tongue, and movement functions for the muscles in the neck – and is responsible for swallowing and speech.
It has a parasympathetic component and is responsible for the digestive tract, respiration, and heart rate functioning – and has a triggering role in defecation, urination, and sexual arousal. And it plays an active role in controlling mood.
In recent years, stimulation of the vagus nerve has shown promise in suppressing appetite and promoting weight loss, treating mood and mental disorders, digestion disorders, epilepsy, acute and chronic inflammation and aiding better rehabilitation following a stroke.
However, these interventions usually involve a device being implanted in the neck or the abdomen, procedures that are expensive and have some risk of side effects.
The Leeds study focused on a small branch of the vagus nerve that can be stimulated without surgery, located in the skin of specific parts of the outer ear.
The 29 healthy volunteers, aged 55 or more, were taught to self-administer the therapy – 15 minutes every day – at home during the study. If the treatment were to be adopted into mainstream treatment, it would be cheap, apparently harmless and convenient.
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 (it) can benefit multiple disorders.”