Category: Rheumatology

The Vagus Nerve: Why Researchers are Zapping It to Treat Autoimmune Disease

Experimental treatments to shock the nervous system on behalf of the immune system is gaining traction in the medical community as a potentially groundbreaking new treatment for patients with autoimmune diseases.

An article first published last month in the weekly science journal, Nature, details an experimental procedure to zap the vagus nerve with soft, electrical stimulation in hopes of jump-starting the immune system.

The vagus nerve is a long collection of motor and sensory fibers that runs the length of the body from the brain to the end of the torso, passing by several major organs along the way, including the heart and the gut.

The journal chronicles a 70-year-old fitness instructor from Amsterdam who signed up for the clinical trial in hopes of finding relief from her rheumatoid arthritis. She touched a small magnet to her skin to turn on an implanted device just beneath her collarbone and the device delivers a set of small electrical impulses to stimulate the vagus nerve.

Stimulation of the vagus nerve has been used for more than a decade to treat conditions such as epilepsy and depression, but only recently have doctors and scientists begun to explore the potential link to autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.

The results of that clinical trial, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that repeated stimulations of the vagus nerve did help to decrease the severity of rheumatoid arthritis in patients like the fitness instructor.

Dr. Swamy Venuturupalli said it makes sense that researchers would consider using the vagus nerve to treat autoimmune conditions.

“For years, the gut has been thought to be the second brain, with more nerve endings than any other organ system,” he said, after reading the Nature article. “The authors lay down the case for the connection between the nervous system and the immune system residing in the gut as well as the rationale for stimulating the vagus nerve as a means to influence the immune system.”

While medical companies are showing interest in manufacturing this treatment for the general population, the widespread success has yet to be seen, with only 25 patients treated in two clinical trials, according to the Nature article.

Still, it’s promising for patients and doctors alike.

Dr. Venuturupalli said he’s encouraged that this technology is already in use for some patients and it has to the potential to benefit many more.

Stay tuned for more information on this new frontier in autoimmune treatment.