At the University of Leeds, British biologists have been able to undo key symptoms of aging by tickling people’s ears.
A lobe in humans’ outer ear holds a strand of the vagus nerve, a neurological highway carrying messages between the gut and brain. It plays several central roles in the parasympathetic nervous system, the branch of the body’s autonomic nervous system that manages basic functions such as breathing and digestion.
The other branch of the autonomic system is the package of sympathetic nerves, which control the fight-freeze-flight response and release of adrenaline to activate us when we’re under stress.
As we age, the parasympathetic nervous system can become weary and overworked due to long-term stress. That often results in chronic illness, disrupted body functions, and other hallmarks of aging.
Researchers thought that goosing the vagus nerve might rebalance the two systems. They attached a small electrode to the lobe of the ear through which the vagus nerve travels and gave 29 healthy volunteers ages 55 and older a 15-minute trickle of current every day for two weeks.
At the end of the trial, tests showed that parasypathetic functions had perked up in the subjects and some said they experienced better mood and sleep. Test subjects with the greatest imbalance between sympathetic and parasympathetic systems were found to have the greatest positive changes.
TRENDPOST: The vagus nerve has become a focus of medical research in recent years; stimulating it has been found to ease depression, epileptic seizures, and even help a person rouse from a vegetative state. Leeds’ findings will spark new research into other benefits of lighting up this nerve superhighway.