New Study Shows Vagus Nerve Stimulation May Reduce RA Symptoms

Cranial nerves are the nerves that emerge directly from your brain. Their function is to relay information between the brain and other parts of the body. The vagus nerve is the longest of the cranial nerves, passing through the neck and thorax all the way to the abdomen. Because of this reach, and because it contains motor and sensory fibers, this nerve has the widest distribution in the body.

A new study has led to promising potential for treating rheumatoid arthritis through electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve. Although previous studies have shown that this method may work to reduce inflammation in animal models, the recent study from the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and the University of Amsterdam is the first of its kind to show that the technique may also work on humans. The clinical trial data, which was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), indicated that the vagus nerve stimulation significantly improved measures of disease activity for patients living with rheumatoid arthritis.

During the study, the stimulation device was implanted on a patient’s vagus nerve during a surgical procedure. After that the electronic pulses were activated and deactivated based on a set schedule for 84 days. Researchers have said that the study participants demonstrated robust responses to the procedure. Several patients in the study reported significant improvements, including some patients who had previously failed to respond to any other form of pharmaceutical treatment. No serious adverse side effects were reported.

According to the press release from The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, the findings suggest a potential new approach to fighting rheumatoid arthritis with bioelectronics medicines. These carefully placed electrical pulses could theoretically treat RA without the use of the potent and expensive drugs most of us currently rely upon. Co-author of the study and president and CEO of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, Dr. Kevin J. Tracey, emphasized the importance of these new findings. “Until now we had no proof that electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve can indeed inhibit cytokine production and reduce disease severity in humans.” Dr. Tracey continued “I believe this study will change the way we see modern medicine, helping us understand that our nerves can, with a little help, make the drugs that we need to help our body heal itself.”

While this particular clinical trial focused on patients living with rheumatoid arthritis, the concept may someday also have potential for patients living with other inflammatory diseases, including Crohn’s, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and more.

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