Strange But True: Tickling Your Ear May Slow Down Aging

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The fountain of youth might live in your ear, according to new research from the University of Leeds.

Specifically, a painless electrical therapy called transcutaneous vagal nerve stimulation (tVNS) led to improvements in well-being, mood and sleep, according to the study published in Aging. These effects were due to an apparent rebalancing of the autonomic nervous system for participants over the age of 55.

How the Therapy Works

For the purposes of this study, scientists administered a small electrical current to the ear daily over the course of two weeks. The current signaled the body's nervous system through the vagus nerve, and by the end of the study, the treatment appeared to improve participants' autonomic function, along with some aspects of quality of life, mood and sleep.

This particular research observed 29 healthy volunteers who received the treatment for 15 minutes each day over a period of two weeks. Those who reported the most significant benefits had the greatest imbalance in their autonomic nervous system when the research began.

Because aging is associated with changes in the autonomic nervous system, improvements to autonomic function may slow down major effects associated with the aging process, according to Science Daily. The therapy recalibrates the body's internal control system, helping people age more healthily.

Potential Benefits of Ear Stimulation

Lead study author Dr. Beatrice Bretherton told Science Daily that the ear acts as a window for the body's overall health.

"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," Bretherton said. "We believe these results are just the tip of the iceberg."

Treatments of tVNS may work to protect people from chronic diseases and conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease and atrial fibrillation. It could benefit other areas of the body that don't require conscious thought, as well, such as digestion and breathing, according to Sky News.

Improvements to quality of life and mood, and particularly depression, may benefit participants by reducing their risk of mortality and need for medication or hospitalization.

An alternative to tVNS is vagus nerve stimulation, which involves a surgical implant of an electrode near the cervical vagus nerve and a generator unit in the thoracic wall, according to the study.

"However, due to its invasive nature, technical complications, and side effects (e.g. pain, coughing, hoarseness of voice), potentially simpler and safer therapies are of interest," the study stated.


About the Author

Brenna Swanston is a freelance writer, editor and journalist. She covers topics including environment, education and agriculture. She previously reported for the Sun newspaper in Santa Maria, Calif., and holds a bachelor's in journalism from California Polytechnic State University. Swanston is an avid traveler and loves jazz, yoga and craft beer.