“Tickling” the outer ear with a painless electrical current may someday help slow the effects of aging on the autonomic nervous system, according to researchers from the University of Leeds.

The skin of the outer ear has a connection to the body’s vagus nerve. This nerve helps to regulate a wide range of involuntary body functions. In transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation, a gentle electrical current signals a branch of this nerve.

In the new study, twenty-nine volunteers aged 55 and older self-administered tVNS daily for two weeks. According to the investigators, participants had increased parasympathetic activity and decreased sympathetic activity, “rebalancing the autonomic function towards that associated with healthy function.” In addition, some volunteers reported improvements in measures of mental health and sleeping patterns, the researchers claimed.

An imbalance in the autonomic nervous system can cause a range of symptoms related to heart rate, body temperature, breathing rate, digestion and sensation. The researchers foresee tVNS therapy being used to help counteract the effects of aging on this system.

“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,” reported the study’s lead author, Beatrice Bretherton, Ph.D. “We believe these results are just the tip of the iceberg,” 

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