- A clip is attached to each ear to zap the vagus nerve with a mild electric shock
Clips that ‘tickle’ a nerve in the ear could be the secret to losing weight. Research suggests that zapping the vagus nerve with a mild electrical current sends a signal to the brain that the stomach is full, thereby reducing appetite.
A trial involving 150 obese people is currently underway in Russia, to see if it can help them lose weight without drugs or surgery.
In England, more than one in four adults are considered obese and 38% are overweight.
Treatment usually begins with advice on dieting and increasing physical activity.
A new generation of weight-loss drugs – such as Wegovy – are also prescribed to certain obese people, defined as having a BMI greater than 30, who have at least one obesity-related health problem, such as type 2 diabetes .
The medications – given as injections once a week – slow the movement of food through the gut, making you feel fuller for longer.
Around 6,500 people undergo obesity surgery on the NHS each year.
This usually involves either placing a band around the stomach to reduce the amount of food it can hold, or performing a gastric bypass, where the top of the stomach is connected to the small intestine, thereby reducing the amount of calories absorbed from food.
But ear tickling therapy might be a simpler approach. This involves attaching a clip to each ear to stimulate a branch of the vagus nerve.
It is a major nerve that runs through the chest, neck and brain and is involved in controlling everything from taste and swallowing to managing your heart rate, breathing and digestion.
In recent years, vagus nerve stimulation has become a powerful treatment for epilepsy and depression.
And animal studies have shown that stimulators targeting the vagus nerve can trigger weight loss by sending signals that trick the brain into thinking the stomach is full.
Worn on both ears and connected to a battery-powered generator on the belt, the clips being tested are attached to the ear concha – the shell-shaped cavity in the middle of the ear that leads toward the ear canal, where a small branch The vagus nerve lies just under the skin.
The current trial conducted by scientists at Moscow State University of Medicine and Dentistry involves obese men and women.
Half benefit from ten minutes of ear stimulation before main meals, every day for six months.
The rest of the groups receive sham treatment: they also wear the clips, but no current passes through them to stimulate the nerve.
Volunteers are monitored to see how much weight they lose during the six-month experiment.
Results from the trial could be available later this year.
Dr Duncan Banks, a neuroscientist at the Open University, said ear stimulation is worth investigating as a way to combat obesity, given it is non-invasive and appears safe.
“But it’s not yet clear exactly how it works and at the moment it’s certainly not a replacement for other obesity therapies,” he said.
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