Six times a day, Katrin pauses whatever she’s doing, removes a small magnet from her pocket and touches it to a raised patch of skin just below her collar bone.
The magnet switches on an implanted device that emits a series of electrical pulses — each about a milliamp, similar to the current drawn by a typical hearing aid. These pulses stimulate her vagus nerve, a tract of fibres that runs down the neck from the brainstem to several major organs, including the heart and gut.
The technique, called vagus-nerve stimulation, has been used since the 1990s to treat epilepsy, and since the early 2000s to treat depression. But Katrin, a 70-year-old fitness instructor in Amsterdam, who asked that her name be changed for this story, uses it to control rheumatoid arthritis…
Several pharmaceutical companies are investing in ‘electroceuticals’ — devices that can modulate nerves — to treat cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. But [Kevin Tracey’s, a neurosurgeon at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York] goal of controlling inflammation with such a device would represent a major leap forward, if it succeeds.
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