Researchers are currently working on a new method to stimulate the heart as a possible future treatment for heart failure. Using electrical pulses to stimulate the vagus nerve, a branch of which runs from the ear to the heart, they have discovered positive effects when it comes to changing how the heart responds to the nervous system.
An established research team at the University of Leeds has been studying the effects of heart stimulation, using a Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation machine, more casually known as a TENS machine. The TENS machine is best recognized as the device that is used during labor and delivery to reduce the pain of contractions.
However, the team at Leeds has been using an electrode attached to the exterior flap at the front of the ear (the tragus), to carry electronic pulses from the TENS machine to the heart. Tested on 34 heart healthy subjects, the procedure has been dubbed “tickling the ear” because, although it is completely painless, a tickling sensation occurs while the TENS machine is running.
Led by Dr. Jennifer Clancy of the University of Leeds School of Biomedical Sciences, the studies are showing a positive effect when it comes to stimulating the heart’s response to its environment.
In contrast to traditional views that the heart should be beating with a consistent rhythm at all times, this study seeks to intentionally change the environment of the heart, thereby allowing it to adapt and respond to the impulses caused by the nervous system.
The TENS machine sends pulses to the heart via the ear for 15 minutes, and the patient is further monitored for an additional 15 minutes once the machine has been turned off. Researchers have discovered that using the machine, the heart rate will vary according to its environment, which may be a key to preventing and treating heart failure.
The secondary effect from the tickling of the ear was a 50% reduction in nerve activity. This is critical because the nervous system often overworks the heart when supplying adrenaline due to the increase of sympathetic activity, which in turn constricts arteries and damages the heart.
So far, researchers have only tested the stimulation theory using healthy patients, and more research is being conducted to test the ear tickling effect on those with existing heart problems. However, the promising results so far could lead to a change in the treatment of heart failure, to coincide with traditional treatments, to strengthen weak hearts and increase the hearts ability to regulate itself during times of distress.
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