Asimple electronic implant into the ‘Spock’ nerve could reverse the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, clinical trials in the Netherlands have shown.
The vagus nerve has been called the ‘captain’ of all nerves because it is linked to so many crucial parts of the body including the heart and the lungs and it would be impossible to breathe if it stopped functioning.
It is also inspired Spock’s Vulcan Nerve Pinch in Star Trek, as compressing the nerve in the neck can cause fainting or even death.
But it also plays an important role in controlling inflammation which is at the heart of rheumatoid arthritis. Around 400,000 people in Britain suffer from the degenerative condition, which occurs when the immune system mistakenly attack the joints causing pain, swelling and stiffness.
However stimulating the vagus nerve can help to bring the immune system back in line. The technique involves fitting a small electric device, like a pacemaker, under the skin of the chest above the nerve.
A study by the University of Amsterdam and the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research showed that sending electrical pulses via the implant over a four month period caused the number of damaging immune cells to drop by up to 38 per cent.
The 17 patients involved in the trial also reported a reduction in swollen and tender joints by one third. All had previously failed to respond to medication.
“This is a real breakthrough in our ability to help people suffering from inflammatory diseases,” said co-author Dr Kevin Tracey, of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, who discovered the inflammatory properties of the vagus nerve.
“While we’ve previously studied animal models of inflammation, until now we had no proof that electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve can indeed inhibit (immune cell) production and reduce disease severity in humans.
“I believe this study will change the way we see modern medicine, helping us understand that our nerves can, with a little help, make the drugs that we need to help our body heal itself.”
While focused on rheumatoid arthritis, the trial’s results may have implications for patients suffering from other inflammatory diseases, including Crohn’s, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and others.
“This is the first study to evaluate whether stimulating the inflammatory reflex directly with an implanted electronic device can treat rheumatoid arthritis in humans,” said lead author Professor Paul-Peter Tak, of the Academic Medical Center, University of Amsterdam.
“The direct correlation between vagus nerve stimulation and the suppression of several key (immune cells) as well as reduced rheumatoid arthritis signs and symptoms demonstrates proof of mechanism, which might be relevant for other immune-mediated inflammatory diseases as well.”
The electronic implant is part of the emerging field of bioelectronic medicine aims to target disorders traditionally treated with drugs and instead uses advanced neuromodulation devices.
In the study, a stimulation device was implanted on the vagus nerve during a surgical procedure, then activated and deactivated over 84 days.
Several patients reported significant improvements, including some who had previously failed to respond to any other form of pharmaceutical treatment. In addition, no serious adverse side effects were reported.
The trial results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.