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The Future Of Vagus Nerve Stimulation: Emerging Applications

Published: Tue 5 Mar 2024 09:26 AM
The vagus nerve is an important part of our nervous system and is responsible for our internal organ functions like heart rate, digestion, and respiration. The nerve runs from the lower part of the brain through the neck and stomach.
Scientists are currently finding interesting ways to use vagus nerve stimulation (VNS). When stimulated, electrical impulses travel to areas of the brain which allows scientists and doctors to treat certain conditions.
Vagus nerve stimulation has applications for mental health and the management of long-term health problems.What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve clearly plays a big role in our bodies. It is the longest cranial nerve, extending from our brainstems to our abdomens. This reach means that it is connected to various organs and tissues throughout the body and plays a big role in the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system controls everything that is “automatic” to us humans. Breathing, digesting food, saliva production and sweating for example, are done by our bodies without our conscious effort and are all controlled by the autonomic nervous system.How Does VNS work?
There are 2 vagus nerves located on each side of the body. It starts down the brain stem and extends down the chest. VNS involves the surgical implantation of a device the size of a silver dollar to the left vagus nerve. This “pacemaker” like device generates electrical impulses to stimulate the brain and treat a number of diseases.
The stimulation can change brain wave patterns and treat certain illnesses.Applications of Vagus Nerve Stimulation
1. Mental Health
The USDA approved VNS as an option for patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression as early as 2005. It is considered as a last resort treatment for chronic or recurring depression.
According to Dr. Cristin Welle of the department of neurosurgery at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine, a vagus nerve stimulator implanted on the necks of patients have resulted in a 50% reduction in baseline assessment scores. VNS produces bilateral activation in the brain including centers involved in emotional regulation.
Although VNS is not approved for the treatment of anxiety. The vagus nerve manages our anxiety and has the ability to calm our bodies. Dr. Welles explains that stimulating the nerve could help reduce anxiety symptoms. More research would be needed but scientists like Dr. Welle are hopeful for this sort of treatment.
2. Epilepsy Management
VNS devices were first implanted in 1997 for the treatment of drug-resistant epilepsy. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, VNS therapy can reduce epilepsy attacks and its severity. Considering that of patients don’t respond to medication, a vagus nerve stimulator can help manage their illness.
3. Inflammatory Diseases
People with auto-immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease can also find relief with VNS. It was discovered that the vagus nerve controlled pro-inflammatory cytokine levels and inflammation. Research that followed revealed that VNS produces a decrease in pro-inflammatory cytokines in some inflammatory disorders.
This means that VNS has the potential in slowing down excessive inflammation resulting in better management of diseases like RA and Crohn’s disease while reducing the need for immunosuppressive medicine with severe side effects.
4. Stroke Rehab
Stroke is a leading cause of long-term disability worldwide. After a stroke, many survivors struggle with motor deficiency and impaired cognitive function.
VNS is being studied as a complementary therapy to promote recovery for chronic ischemic stroke patients who are active in physical therapy but have not gotten back their hand and arm function. It is also recommended for stroke survivors who continue to experience moderate to severe hand and arm function even though the attack happened years ago.
5. Obesity and Metabolic Disorders
Obesity is now a global health crisis and it has far-reaching consequences. Emerging research suggests that VNS could play a role in weight management by suppressing appetite and inducing sensations of satiety.
An implanted device in an obese person sends electrical impulses to the abdominal wall which disrupts hunger sensations. This tricks patients into thinking that they are full and promotes healthy weight loss.
6. Neurodegenerative Diseases
Unfortunately, VNS is not a cure for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. However, VNS therapy can offer potential benefits for patients living with these conditions.
Research shows that VNS can help improve cognitive function and quality of life for people with Alzheimer’s. VNS has been shown to improve short-term memory, working memory and memory consolidation. Patients with Parkinson’s also saw improvement in their locomotor function and other movement problems.
7. Migraines and Headaches
VNS is an FDA approved treatment for headaches and migraines. This is good news for people who suffer from migraines and cluster headaches because it offers a safe and natural way to alleviate pain.
If you're looking for a VNS device in Australia, typically, purchasing one can be quite costly. Nevertheless, there exists an alternative solution where you can utilize a tens machine in conjunction with an ear clip for Vagus nerve stimulation.
Using a tens machine for vagus nerve stimulation can reduce the likelihood of reducing headaches and migraines. A tens machine can be used at home easily. Patients can easily attach the pads on the affected area and turn on the device. Electrical signals will be emitted by the electrodes and block pain signals to get rid of pain naturally.Challenges and Ethical Considerations
As an emerging application for medical technology, there are various challenges and ethical considerations surrounding vagus nerve stimulation. These include:
1. Accessibility
Surgically implanting and maintaining a VNS device can be expensive, making it inaccessible to many patients. While it is clear that using VNS therapy has many health benefits, it is not an option available to many patients.
2. Safety
While VNS is generally considered safe, like any medical procedure, it carries some risks, such as infection or device malfunction. Ensuring safety and minimizing potential side effects will be a key focus of ongoing research.
Fortunately, there are non-invasive options like the tens machine for vagus nerve stimulation that can be used externally to help alleviate headaches. However, it might not be effective for other diseases like Alzheimer’s and obesity.
3. Ethical Use
As VNS becomes more versatile, ethical questions may arise about its use for cognitive enhancement or mood manipulation. Striking a balance between medical and non-medical applications will be a complex ethical challenge.
4. Informed Consent
Informed consent is essential when implanting devices that affect a person's nervous system. Ensuring that individuals fully understand the potential risks and benefits of VNS will be essential to ethical practice.Bottom Line
Thanks to technology, research and science, the applications for VNS are varied and show a lot of promise. The vagus nerve's ability to regulate various bodily functions makes it a versatile target for medical interventions. As studies continue, we can expect to see more groundbreaking and exciting applications emerge.

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