A pioneering approach to tackling a host of diseases using an electrical implant could eventually reduce or even end pill-taking for some patients, researchers have claimed.
The technology relies on electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve – a bundle of nerve fibres that runs from the brain to the abdomen, branching off to organs including the heart, spleen, lungs and gut, and which relays signals from the body’s organs to the brain and vice versa.
The pacemaker-like device is typically implanted below the left collarbone with wires running to the vagus nerve in the neck and is already used to tackle treatment-resistant epilepsy and depression.
But a growing body of researchers say that such “hacking” of the body’s neural circuits could alleviate the symptoms of diseases including rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease by tapping into a recently discovered link between the brain and the immune system.
That, they say, could bring hope for those with currently untreatable conditions while raising the possibility for others of dramatically reducing medication, or even cutting it out altogether.
“In your lifetime and mine we are going to see millions of people with devices so they don’t have to take drugs,” said Kevin Tracey, president of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and co-founder of bioelectronics company, SetPoint Medical.
Among the studies fuelling the excitement is research published by Tracey and colleagues last year: of the 17 patients with rheumatoid arthritis involved in a clinical trial, more than two-thirds had at least a 20% improvement in their disease, with two entering remission.