New research has found that ‘tickling’ the ear with a small electrical current appears to slow down ageing

In the over-55s, tickling’ the ear with a small electrical current appears to rebalance the autonomic nervous system, potentially slowing down one of the effects of ageing.

What’s more, University of Leeds scientists found that a short daily sessions of ear-tickling therapy delivered for two weeks led to both physiological and physical well-being improvements, including a better quality of life, mood and sleep.

Their research suggests that the ‘tickle’ therapy has the potential to help people age more healthily, by recalibrating the body’s internal control system.

The ear is like a gateway

The therapy – called ‘transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation’ – delivers a small, painless electrical current to the ear, which sends signals to the body’s nervous system through the vagus nerve.

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The therapy may slow down an important effect associated with ageing, helping protect people from chronic diseases which we become more prone to as we get older, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and atrial fibrillation.

“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. We believe these results are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Dr Beatrice Bretherton, from the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Leeds.

“We are excited to investigate further into the effects and potential long-term benefits of daily ear stimulation, as we have seen a great response to the treatment so far.”

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What is the autonomic nervous system?

The autonomic nervous system controls many of the body’s functions which don’t require conscious thought, such as digestion, breathing, heart rate and blood pressure, and contains two branches – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, which work against each other to maintain a healthy balance of activity.

As we age, and when we are fighting disease, the body’s balance changes such that the sympathetic branch begins to dominate. This imbalance makes us more susceptible to new diseases and leads to the breakdown of healthy bodily function as we get older.

Clinicians have long been interested in the potential for using electrical currents to influence the nervous system.

The vagus nerve, the major nerve of the parasympathetic system, has often been used for electrical stimulation and past research has looked at the possibility of using vagus nerve stimulation to tackle depression, epilepsy, obesity, stroke, tinnitus and heart conditions.

However, this kind of stimulation needs surgery to implant electrodes in the neck region, with the associated expense and a small risk of side effects.

Fortunately, there is one minor branch of the vagus nerve that can be stimulated without surgery, located in the skin of specific parts of the outer ear.

Study included 29 volunteers

For the study, 29 healthy volunteers, aged 55 or above, were given tVNS therapy for 15 minutes per day, over a two-week period, and were taught to self-administer the therapy at home during the study.

The therapy led to an increase in parasympathetic activity and a decrease in sympathetic activity, rebalancing the autonomic function towards a healthy function. In addition, some people reported improved mental health and sleeping patterns.

Researchers found that individuals who displayed the greatest imbalance at the start of the study experienced the most pronounced improvements after receiving the therapy.

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Source: University of Leeds via

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