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Seeking to expand the role of ‘electroceutical’ therapies

Electroceuticals—devices that treat ailments with electrical impulses—have a long history in medicine. Think pacemakers for the heart, cochlear implants for the ears and deep-brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease. One of these approaches is poised to become more versatile, dramatically improving care for a host of conditions. It involves delivering signals to the vagus nerve, which sends impulses from the brain stem to most organs and back again.

So far studies of inflammation-related applications are encouraging. VNS devices developed by SetPoint Medical [have] proved safe in early human trials for rheumatoid arthritis, which causes painful, disfiguring inflammation of joints, and for Crohn’s disease, which involves inflammation of the intestines.

The electroceutical approach is also being considered for other maladies that have an inflammatory component, such as cardiovascular disease, metabolic dysregulation and dementia, as well as for autoimmune disorders such as lupus, in which the vagal nerve itself becomes underactive.

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Researchers still need to know more about how VNS produces its effects in each condition and how best to determine the optimal patterns of stimulation for individual patients.

Nevertheless, as more studies and trials examine the mechanisms and effects, VNS and other electroceuticals may ultimately be able to better manage a wide range of chronic conditions, potentially reducing the need to take medicine for millions of patients.

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