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article imageFighting arthritic pain with the vagus nerve

By Tim Sandle     Nov 22, 2015 in Science
The majority of nerves run from the body to the brain. The vagus nerve, however, goes in the opposite direction, running from the brain to the body. Scientists think they can exploit this for pain management.
Researchers are reviewing whether the vagus nerve fibers can be stimulated to help treat rheumatoid arthritis. The tenth cranial nerve extends from the brain stem, through the neck and down into the abdomen (it is sometimes called the “pneumogastric nerve.”) Across this nerve "superhighway," the network criss-crosses with several organs.
By experimenting with different levels of electricity in rats (and hence different levels of stimulation) researchers have found the vagus nerve helps to regulate inflammation. Inflammation is associated with a range of autoimmune diseases. Indicator studies in humans found daily stimulation of the vagus nerve with low levels of electricity led to a reduction in the inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis, and thus a reduction in both swelling and pain.
The benefits are not only with arthritis. Scientists think that manipulating the nerve can help with a range of ailments. One study, for example, has looked at helping with heart beats and with pumping blood around the body. The outcome of this research has led to studies on using artificial electrical stimulators (types of pacemakers) to help influence the way signals are passed around the body. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently approved one such application for epilepsy control. The effectiveness of this has been reported to the journal Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery (“Vagus nerve stimulation therapy for treatment-resistant epilepsy: A 15-year experience at a single institution.”)
The reasons for the physiological benefits from electric stimulation of the vagus nerve are due to stimulation increasing the levels of the neurotransmitters. Examples include acetylcholine, which is associated with inflammation; and norepinephrine. This second chemical transfers messages between nerve cells in parts of the brain. This process can influence mood and response to pain.
There could well be other applications from stimulating the vagus nerve. Much of its function remains a mystery to medical scientists. Speaking with Science News, Douglas Zipes, an electrophysiologist from the Indiana University, stated: “The vagus has far-reaching effects. We’re only beginning to understand them.”
More about Arthritis, vagus nerve, Electricity, Pain management
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