We would all love to feel a little bit younger. With over 1.8 million cosmetic surgeries performed and 17 billion dollars in revenue generated by the skincare market in 2017, many will do what they can to feel youthful again. But new research suggests a short daily therapy treatment may preserve your youth in ways a skincare routine cannot. Conducted by the University of Leeds, a 2019 study had found that “tickling” the ear with a small electrical current may improve your psychological and physical wellbeing, reduce aging complications, and even make you happier while sleeping sounder. Can tickling your ear truly slow down the effects of aging? Lead author Dr. Beatrice Bretherton believes so. “The ear is like a gateway through which we can tinker with the body’s metabolic balance, without the need for medication or invasive procedures. We believe these results are just the tip of the iceberg.”
Thanks to the body’s nervous system, our bodies are constantly performing a delicate balancing act. Containing two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, these branches compete against one another to promote a healthy balance of activity. As we get older, and when we are combatting diseases, the sympathetic branch begins to dominate this crucial balancing act, making us more susceptible to new illnesses and increases the breakdown of healthy bodily function according to Bretherton’s research.
The parasympathetic branch has been a point of focus for many clinicians studying the relationship between electrical currents and how they may influence the nervous system. In past research, the vagus nerve, the largest nerve in the parasympathetic branch, was the focus of electrical stimulation with the possibility of treating depression, epilepsy, stroke, obesity, tinnitus, and heart conditions. Unfortunately, this type of treatment requires surgery to implant electrodes inside of areas of the neck, resulting in expense and small risk side effects. However, one branch of the vagus nerve is accessible without surgery, residing in the skin of specific locations of the outer ear, opening the door for the Bretherton’s research.
By targeting the accessible vagus nerve through the outer ear, a small, painless electrical current is delivered in a process called transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS). This nerve stimulation sends signals to the rest of the nervous system through the vagus nerve, activating one branch of the autonomic system over the other, essentially recalibrating this sensitive balancing act and reducing the risks that out-of-balance autonomic systems can create in older patients.
To conduct their research, the University of Leeds recruited 29 volunteers, aged 55 or above, and administered the tVNS therapy to each of them for 15 minutes per day over a two week period. The results were promising. Bretherton’s team found that the therapy led to an increase in parasympathetic activity and a decrease in sympathetic activity, rebalancing the autonomic function and bringing it closer to healthy functioning levels. Remarkably, some volunteers had even reported improvements in aspects of mental health and sleeping patterns.
For tVNS therapy, the future is bright. Dr Susan Deuchars, a senior author of the study, concluded: “We believe this stimulation can make a big difference to people’s lives, and we’re now hoping to conduct further studies to see if tVNS can benefit multiple disorders.”