Ear as a Getaway to Slow Aging

Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve may affect stroke, obesity, depression, epilepsy, and heart conditions

Senior woman ear

Senior woman ear

Tickling the ears of people 55 and over with a minimal electrical current can rebalance the autonomic nervous system and slow aging, says Dr. Beatrice Bretherton from the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Leeds, lead author of the report in the journal Aging.i

Ear Connection

Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) therapy delivers light, pain-free electrical currents to the ear to affect the vagus nerve, the major nerve of the parasymapthetic nervous system.

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The vagus nerve has been studied for its ability to influence depression, epilepsy, obesity, stroke, tinnitus and heart conditions. However, influencing the vagus nerve required electrodes being implanted in the neck. One small branch of the vagus nerve can be stimulated without surgery. It is located in the skin of specific parts of the outer ear.

Applying a small electrical stimulus to the vagus nerve at the ear is perceived as a tickling sensation, but it improved the balance of the autonomic nervous system in healthy 30-year-olds. Now, researchers find it will do the same in older adults.

Two Branches

The autonomic nervous system controls many of the body’s largely unconscious functions including digestion, breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. Its two branches include the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch helps the body prepare for high intensity ‘fight or flight’ activity. The parasympathetic is crucial to low intensity ‘rest and digest’ activity.

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As we age, and as we are fighting diseases, balance changes. The sympathetic branch dominates, creating anxiety, restricting blood flow, and decreasing our cerebral cortex activity.

“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,” Dr. Bretherton said.

Additionally, improving the balance of the autonomic nervous system lowers an individual's risk of death, as well as the need for medication or hospital visits.

Researchers found that individuals who displayed the greatest imbalance at the start of the study experienced the most pronounced improvements after receiving the therapy.

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They suggest that in future it may be possible to identify who is most likely to benefit from the therapy, so it can be offered through a targeted approach.

tVNS therapy has previously been shown to have positive psychological effects for patients with depression, and this study shows it could also have significant physiological benefits.

The study recruited 29 healthy volunteers, aged 55 or above, and gave each of them the therapy for 15 minutes per day. Participants learned to self-administer the therapy at home during the study. The therapy led to an increase in parasympathetic activity and a decrease in sympathetic activity, rebalancing autonomic function.

Reference i Beatrice Bretherton, Lucy Atkinson, Aaron Murray, Jennifer Clancy, Susan Deuchars, Jim Deuchars. Effects of transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation in individuals aged 55 years or above: potential benefits of daily stimulation. Aging, 2019; DOI: 10.18632/aging.102074
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