Is the vagus nerve the key to treating rheumatoid disease?

close up of nerve on blue background

The vagus nerve is a long nerve that runs between the brain and the neck, chest, and abdomen. It allows the brain to monitor and receive information about several of the body's different functions.

A team at Stanford University, led by Dr. Mark Genovese, has been able to reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid disease by electrostimulation of the vagus nerve. 

It works by controlling an inflammatory reflex in the vagus nerve. This reduces the body’s production of cytokines, including molecules called tumor necrosis factor (TNF). 

People with rheumatoid disease have excess TNF in their bloodstream causing inflammation. Many rheumatoid patients already take drugs that target TNF. These include biologic drugs like Humira, Remicade and Enbrel.

The Stanford team carried out a 12-week patient study with people who had not responded well to existing rheumatoid medications. 

The patients had a small MicroRegulator device implanted in their bodies to stimulate the vagus nerve.

The study results showed that the MicroRegulator device reduced cytokine levels by 30 percent. 

"Our pilot study suggests this novel MicroRegulator device is well tolerated and reduces signs and symptoms of [Rheumatoid Disease]," says Dr. Mark Genovese, the James W. Raitt Endowed Professor of Medicine at Stanford University in California, USA.

This is promising news for rheumatoid patients. While further studies are needed, this research opens up a new treatment route that avoids the side-effects associated with existing biologic medications.

"This is a really exciting development. These results open the door to a novel approach to treating not only rheumatoid disease but other chronic inflammatory diseases. This is certainly an area for further study,"  said Prof. Thomas Dörner, Chairperson of the Scientific Programme Committee at the Annual European Congress of Rheumatology. 

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