The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but are your ears the windows to your autonomic nervous system? New research conducted at the University of Leeds has found that using the ear to send small electrical currents to the vagus nerve can stimulate the nervous system. For those over 55 years old, this type of therapy may even slow down one of the effects of aging and lead to healthier aging.
This therapy is known as transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation or tVNS. One small branch of the vagus nerve can be stimulated in the skin of specific parts of the outer ear. By delivering a small, painless electrical current to the ear, the vagus nerve carries signals to the body’s autonomic nervous system. Some people perceive the electrical current as a “tickle” sensation, which is why the therapy has also gained the nickname “tickle therapy.”
The autonomic nervous system regulates many of the body’s functions that do not require conscious thought, such as breathing, digestion, blood pressure, and heart rate. To control these systems, the autonomic nervous system uses two branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. These two branches work against each other in order to maintain a balance of activity.
The sympathetic branch of the nervous system is responsible for “high-intensity” responses, including the famous “fight or flight” activity. The parasympathetic branch, on the other hand, manages “low-intensity” activity, such as “rest and digest.”
In a healthy person, the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches maintain a good balance. However, when the body is fighting disease, the sympathetic branch begins to dominate. The same phenomenon is seen as a person ages. This imbalance between the branches of the autonomic nervous system contributes to the breakdown of healthy bodily function as we age, and it can also make us more susceptible to new disease.
While other research has been done on the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation in order to rebalance the nervous system, clinicians previously focused on stimulating the nerve through an implanted electrode. Through “tickle therapy,” however, no surgery is needed. In previous research performed at the University of Leeds, researchers found that tVNS improved the balance of the autonomic nervous system in healthy 30-year-olds.
The new study focused on the benefits of tVNS for individuals over the age of 55, who are more likely to have an imbalance in their nervous system. Researchers found that by conducting “tickle therapy” for 15 minutes every day for two weeks, they saw an increase in parasympathetic activity and a decrease in sympathetic activity. When these branches are balanced, we are more likely to see healthy function of the body’s systems. Some study participants also reported improved mental health and sleep patterns.
Researchers believe that being able to correct the balance of the autonomic nervous system could help people age more healthily and could even help with a variety of disorders, such as heart disease and some mental health conditions. As people age more healthily, they may also be able to better prevent some aging symptoms that are now regarded as nearly inevitable, such as hearing loss.
Because researchers saw the most improvement in individuals who had the greatest imbalance at the beginning of the study, they also believe it will be possible in the future to assess whether a person would likely benefit from tVNS and offer targeted therapy.
To learn more about the exciting prospects of tVNS and how it can contribute to healthy aging, we invite you to contact our audiology office today. We are eager to assist you!