Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) inflammation can be controlled by electrically stimulating the vagus nerve. The researchers developed a device that stimulates the vagus nerve without yielding unwanted side effects.
The vagus nerve passes through the neck and thorax into the abdomen and transmits electrical signals between the brain and other organs such as the stomach. Through these signals, the brain obtains the information on the state of the given organs and controls their activity. The vagus nerve informs the brain when something is wrong with an organ and helps regulate the immune system, too.
The vagus nerve is responsible for controlling inflammation, and IBD is associated with excessive inflammation that is damaging to healthy tissues. Researchers believed that by stimulating the vagus nerve they could better control inflammation.
Study lead author Yogi Patel explained, “The original studies in animals on the anti-inflammatory benefits of vagus nerve stimulation resorted to nerve transections to achieve directional stimulation as well as boost effectiveness of nerve stimulation… But cutting the vagus is not clinically viable — due to the multitude of vital bodily functions it monitors and regulates. Our approach provides the same therapeutic benefit, but is also immediately reversible, controllable, and clinically feasible.”
Because the vagus nerve contains a pathway that promotes inflammation, stimulating the nerve from the brain to organs can indeed help reduce inflammation, but stimulating the pathway back to the brain may actually trigger inflammation.
To stimulate the vagus nerve, the researchers developed a device similar to a pacemaker. They were able to reduce unwanted side effects by inhibiting the nerve that contributes to inflammation.
Senior researcher Robert Butera added, “We use an electrode with a kilohertz frequency that blocks unwanted nerve conduction in addition to the electrode that stimulates nerve activity. We’ve arranged the two near each other, so the blocking electrode forces the stimulation from the stimulating electrode to only go in one direction.”
So far, the device was tested on rats and results showed a decrease in inflammation. The nerve stimulation can be turned on and off, depending on the patient’s individual needs.