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Scientists Discover How Vagus Nerve Stimulation Treats Rheumatoid Arthritis

Updated: Dec 25, 2017

By selectively stimulating nerve fibers running from the brain to the spleen with electricity, researchers have successfully treated a small group of patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Importantly, the team showed the exact mechanism by which the procedure works: Vagus nerve stimulation activates immune system cells to inhibit the production of key inflammatory proteins, called cytokines, implicated in the disease.  

“We wanted to know if we could selectively block cytokines in humans with electrons. The answer is yes,” says study co-author Kevin Tracey, president and CEO of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York and co-founder of SetPoint Medical Corporation, which funded the study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We began with the mechanism and ended with the mechanism.”

Using mild pulses of electricity to treat disease, so-called “bioelectronic medicine” or “electroceuticals” is not new, but knowing exactly how it works in the body for a particular disease is a step forward. Many medical devices are approved and put to use without knowledge of what downstream molecular events they cause in the body.

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Vagus nerve stimulation is an approved treatment for both epilepsy and depression. The vagus nerve, which runs down the neck and to major organs, is a super-highway bundle of over 100,000 nerve fibers. Four of its five “lanes”—about 80 percent of the fibers—run information from the body up to the brain. In addition to epilepsy and depression, researchers have been exploring how to activate those fibers to treat heart failure, stroke, migraine, and numerous other ailments.