Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) can rebalance the autonomic nervous system for patients over 55 years and potentially slow down one of the effects of ageing, according to new research.
Scientists found that delivering a small, painless electrical current to the ear daily for two weeks led to both physiological and wellbeing improvements, including a better quality of life, mood and sleep.
The autonomic nervous system controls many of the body's functions such as digestion, breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. An imbalance in ageing makes older people more susceptible to new diseases and leads to the breakdown of healthy bodily function.
The new research, conducted at the University of Leeds, suggests the therapy may protect against diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease and atrial fibrillation.
'Tickle' therapy could help people age more healthily
The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Aging, suggest that the 'tickle' therapy has the potential to help people age more healthily, by recalibrating the body's internal control system.
Lead author Dr Beatrice Bretherton, from the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Leeds, said: "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.
"We are excited to investigate further into the effects and potential long-term benefits of daily ear stimulation, as we have seen a great response to the treatment so far."
The study was conducted by scientists from the University of Leeds and funded by the Dunhill Medical Trust who recruited 29 healthy volunteers, aged 55 or above, and gave each of them the tVNS therapy for 15 minutes per day, over a two week period. Participants were taught to self-administer the therapy at home during the study.
The therapy led to an increase in parasympathetic activity and a decrease in sympathetic activity, rebalancing the autonomic function towards that associated with healthy function. In addition, some people reported improvements in measures of mental health and sleeping patterns.
Researchers found that individuals who displayed the greatest imbalance at the start of the study experienced the most pronounced improvements after receiving the therapy.
Dr Susan Deuchars, one of the senior authors on the study, said: "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."
Further studies are now needed to understand what the long-term health effects of tVNS might be, as this study involved a small number of participants over a short time period.