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Vagus Nerve Stimulation and Repair

The use of vagus nerve stimulation is an up-and-coming technology that may be able to provide sufferers of depression a non-invasive option for treatment. We spoke with Sterling Cooley, an expert on vagus nerve stimulation and other neurotechnology, to learn more. 

Sterling Cooley became a name in the world of brain stimulation techniques and neurotech due to his work in putting together a team including experts in ultrasound, expert software engineers, neuroscientists, clinicians and doctors in the years 2013 and 2014. Cooley now works in China helping to make the equipment used in these technologies.

What is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve is a huge nerve network, with the word “vagus” itself being the Latin word for “wanderer”, so named because of the way it travels through the body, reaching the lungs, heart, kidneys, spleen, gallbladder, bladder, intestines, ovaries, colon, throat, ears, and eyes – and that’s just touching the surface. 

It’s the biggest of the cranial nerves, controlling the inner nerve center, which is also known as the parasympathetic nervous system. While called the vagus “nerve,” it’s actually a pair of nerves. Cranial nerves tend to have either sensory or motor functions within the body, though some of the cranial nerves have both functions, the vagus nerve included. 

Some of the known functions of the vagus nerve include providing sensory information regarding various parts of the body, such as the skin behind the ear, the external part of the ear canal, and various parts of the throat. The vagus nerve also provides people with information regarding various organs within the body, including the larynx, the esophagus, the lungs, the heart, and most of the digestive tract. 

Additionally, this cranial nerve has a number of motor functions. It helps to stimulate muscles in the pharynx, the larynx, and the soft palate. Other parts of the body it helps stimulate include muscles of the heart, which is a particularly important role as it helps to lower one’s resting heart rate. Finally, the vagus nerve plays a vital role in the stimulation of various muscles associated with the digestive tract, allowing food to move within this system in the body.

The Vagus Nerve and Anxiety

“I think the vagus nerve has a lot to do with anxiety – a lot,” notes Cooley. “The vagus nerve is deactivated when you’re having an anxiety attack. If you want to get out of an anxiety attack, then you want to stimulate the vagus nerve.” He describes this process as the switching of train tracks in a train station. “If you’re in an anxiety attack, your sympathetic nervous system – your fight or flight – is going to activate and this is going to take energy away from your vagus nerve.” The pupils dilate, the heart rate increases, digestion stops, and numerous other processes occur as a result. It’s simple then to see how working with the vagus nerve can have an effect on people’s moods. 

What Does the Vagal Nerve Have to Do With Depression?

One of the important things to note about the vagus nerve is it’s essentially split into two halves, a concept that is expounded upon in polyvagal theory and a big part of the neurotech used to treat vagus nerve issues.

 The upper part of the vagus nerve, called the ventral vagal system, is a relatively new structure in the body. This part of the vagus nerve system primarily works with the parasympathetic nervous system and helps the body to stay calm and relaxed. This system also plays a big role in our ability to connect to other people. 

Anything below the diaphragm and the ribcage is called the dorsal vagus nerve and is an “antique” version of this nerve system. All mammals have this system, and it exists at least in part to help animals “play dead,” slowing down their organs internally in the process. 

“The dorsal vagal chain – when you’re threatened by something, when you’re startled by, let’s say, an animal that’s going to jump out of the brush and kill you, eat you, some animals you may have noticed play dead – they get startled so much they just turn off completely. That’s a survival technique because the animal that’s chasing it thinks it’s already dead, and most animals unless they’re desperate, don’t want to eat a dead animal,” explains Cooley.

People who feel exposed to various threats, perhaps by what they see online or in social media, can have a version of this same response. However, once the body realizes it can’t run or fight anymore, it has one option left – to play dead. This is all a part of the sympathetic nervous system, which deals with what occurs when the body becomes overstimulated. 

Cooley goes on to explain that this may be one of the root causes of depression. People who are used to being in “fight or flight” mode become exhausted, go into “dorsal vagal activation” mode, and begin to shut down. As opposed to “playing dead,” when humans’ sympathetic nervous systems spring into action, the result can be feelings of dissociation, a full collapse, or even a partial freeze that leaves the individual unable to think clearly or to access their words and emotions. Fortunately, advances in neurotechnology and brain stimulation mean there are solutions available to those who’ve been stuck in “dorsal vagal activation” mode.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Stimulating the vagus nerve can have a profound effect, reversing much of this effect and allowing people to get out of this mode, thereby alleviating depression. 

The FDA has already approved vagal nerve stimulation in the treatment of depression. Stimulation of the vagus nerve has been shown to have a significant effect on treating depression and other mood disorders. Currently, vagus nerve stimulation can be performed in a few different ways. 

One of these methods includes the implantation of a small device called a vagus nerve stimulator into the body. Vagus nerve stimulation treatment using this device originated as a treatment for epilepsy. However, researchers found that a number of people while using this device noticed a great reduction in previous depressive symptoms. 

Now, rather than use this invasive treatment, new neurotech such as ultrasound treatment can also be used for stimulation of the vagus nerve. This can be a good alternative for those who wish to receive treatment for the vagus nerve but who are unable or unwilling to receive a vagus nerve implant. Another benefit of ultrasound is it can be used to help repair the vagus nerve. 

Natural Vagus Stimulation Techniques

Those who cannot currently find treatment with a professional should also know there are natural ways to stimulate the vagus nerve. These methods can be good to use when you are in a heightened state of arousal – that is, experiencing strong feelings of depression or anxiety. 

One of the methods an individual can use to stimulate their vagus nerve includes humming, or for those who enjoy yoga, the recitation of a simple melody such as the classic “om.” While doing so, it’s good to pay attention to the physical sensations this creates, especially in the chest, throat, and head. Conscious breathing is another way to stimulate the vagus nerve and works particularly well as it involves purposely slowing down one’s breathing, making it especially effective for those dealing with anxious feelings. 

Simply splashing cold water over one’s face from the lips up to the line of the scalp is another quick, simple way to stimulate the vagus nerve. It can be especially effective for those under intense stress who need a way to quickly calm themselves down. Another common method is something called the Valsalva maneuver, which is essentially breathing out while the mouth and nose are closed, something which can reduce both heart rate and blood pressure.

Finally, remember that one of the simplest ways to activate the vagus nerve is by reaching out and making connections with other people. This can be a challenge for those dealing with feelings of depression, but stimulating this part of the body and thereby activating the parasympathetic nervous system can have a tremendous impact on an individual’s overall wellbeing.

Finding Problems With the Vagus Nerve

Those who may be interested or who are considering it can start by determining whether there may be some issues with their vagal nerve. By looking at common symptoms that occur when the vagus nerve is damaged or otherwise not working properly an individual may be able to decide whether vagus nerve stimulation and repair is right for them. Some symptoms include having difficulty swallowing, experiencing digestive issues, and of course depression. 

Many problems of the vagus nerve arise as the result of inflammation. This inflammation can occur due to chronic stress. This is because while short-term activation of the sympathetic nervous system is a good thing, releasing cortisol which in turn helps keep the immune system, too much stress leads to problems with the immune system and therefore inflammation throughout the body. 

People can try heart rate variability testing to determine if there is an issue with their vagus nerve, as when the vagus nerve system is activated it helps the heart slow down and relax. Those who don’t have good heart rate variability will often find there is an issue with their vagus nerve.