Researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK found that a small electrical current that tickles the ear appears to slow down one of the effects of ageing. This tickle therapy of electrical stimulation to the ear rebalances the autonomic nervous system for people age 55 and over. Results of their research were published July 30, 2019 in the journal Aging.
Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation (tVNS)
This tickle therapy is called Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation (tVNS) and it delivers a small, painless electrical current to the vagus nerve at the skin of the outer ear. This sends signals through the vagus nerve to the nervous system of the body.
The tVNS Tickle Therapy Treatment may help Protect People from Chronic Diseases
The researchers found that a short period of tVNS therapy every day over a period of two weeks led to improvements in mood, sleep and a better quality of life. This led the scientists to believe that tVNS may help protect people from chronic diseases like high blood pressure, heart disease and atrial fibrillation. To read more about chronic diseases see our blog post from December 20, 2018.
The Autonomic Nervous System has Two Branches
The autonomic nervous system has two branches that regulate many of the unconscious functions of the body such as breathing, blood pressure, heart rate and digestion. It is very important that the two branches remain in balance, However, as we age the sympathetic branch becomes more dominant, which affects healthy bodily function. This makes people more susceptible to new diseases.
The Sympathetic Branch
The sympathetic branch helps the body get ready for high intensity ‘fight or flight’ activity.
The Parasympathetic Branch
The parasympathetic branch has the function of “rest and digest” activity.
Past Research with Electric Currents to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
Past research of electrical stimulation to the vagus nerve to treat depression, obesity, stroke, epilepsy, heart conditions and tinnitus involved surgical implants of electrodes into the neck. This was a more expensive treatment, since it needed surgery and it also had a risk for side effects. However, this new tickling treatment does not require surgery and is safer and less expensive.
Method of the Study
The participants were 29 health volunteers aged 55 or older. They were given the tickle tVNS therapy for 15 minutes a day over a period of two weeks. The participants were also taught how to treat themselves at home with the tickle therapy.
Previous research had only shown psychological benefits, but the results of this study showed both physical and mental health improvements. In fact, those that had the most imbalance between the two branches of the autonomic nervous system at the beginning of the study showed the most improvement. The researchers hope that in the future they will find a way to see who would most likely benefit from the tickle treatment.
More Research is Needed
More research is needed to see what will be the long-term health effects of tickling therapy. Dr. Beatrice Bretherton, the lead author of the study explains that the ear is a safe non-invasive way to stimulate the nervous system.
Short-term Rehabilitation or Long-term Skilled Nursing Care for Chronic Diseases
If you or your loved one are in need of short-term or long-term skilled nursing care for chronic diseases, the Van Duyn Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Syracuse, New York offers expert treatment at the hands of a warm and caring staff.
Tickle therapy to the vagus nerve via the ear may hold promise to treat chronic diseases. Certainly, being tickled on the ear is a pleasant way to be treated for chronic and mental diseases.