Faculty of Biological Sciences

Research Bulletin

‘Tickling’ your ear could be good for your heart

20th August 2014

Stimulating nerves in your ear could improve the health of your heart, researchers have discovered.

‘Tickling’ your ear could be good for your hearttitle=

A team at the University of Leeds used a standard TENS machine like those designed to relieve labour pains to apply electrical pulses to the tragus, the small raised flap at the front of the ear immediately in front of the ear canal.

The stimulation changed the influence of the nervous system on the heart by reducing the nervous signals that can drive failing hearts too hard.

Professor Jim Deuchars, Professor of Systems Neuroscience in the University of Leeds’ Faculty of Biological Sciences, said: “You feel a bit of a tickling sensation in your ear when the TENS machine is on, but it is painless. It is early days—so far we have been testing this on healthy subjects—but we think it does have potential to improve the health of the heart and might even become part of the treatment for heart failure.”

The researchers applied electrodes to the ears of 34 healthy people and switched on the TENS (Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machines for 15-minute sessions. They monitored the variability of subjects’ heartbeats and the activity of the part of the nervous system that drives the heart. Monitoring continued for 15 minutes after the TENS machine was switched off.

Lead researcher Dr Jennifer Clancy, of the University of Leeds’ School of Biomedical Sciences, said: “The first positive effect we observed was increased variability in subjects’ heartbeats. A healthy heart does not beat like a metronome. It is continually interacting with its environment—getting a little bit faster or a bit slower depending on the demands on it. An unhealthy heart is more like a machine constantly banging out the same beat. We found that when you stimulate this nerve you get about a 20% increase in heart rate variability.”

The second positive effect was in suppressing the sympathetic nervous system, which drives heart activity using adrenaline.

Dr Clancy said: “We measured the nerve activity directly and found that it reduced by about 50% when we stimulated the ear. This is important because if you have heart disease or heart failure, you tend to have increased sympathetic activity. This drives your heart to work hard, constricts your arteries and causes damage. A lot of treatments for heart failure try to stop that sympathetic activity—beta-blockers, for instance, block the action of the hormones that implement these signals. Using the TENS, we saw a reduction of the nervous activity itself.”

The researchers found significant residual effects, with neither heart rate variability or sympathetic nerve activity returning to the baseline 15 minutes after the TENS machine had been switched off.

The technique works by stimulating a major nerve called the vagus, which has an important role in regulating vital organs such as the heart. There is a sensory branch of the vagus in the outer ear and, by sending electrical current down the nerves and into the brain, researchers were able to influence outflows from the brain that regulate the heart. Vagal nerve stimulation has previously been used to treat conditions including epilepsy.

Professor Deuchars said: “We now need to understand how big and how lasting the residual effect on the heart is and whether this can help patients with heart problems, probably alongside their usual treatments. The next stage will be to conduct a pre-clinical study in heart failure patients.”

The research is published today in the journal Brain Stimulation and was funded by the University of Leeds.

View full article


Recent Grants

Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2014), £749,865

Paul Knox, EU (Oct 2014), £167,229

Andrew Peel, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £371,598

Lars Jeuken, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £313,463

Neil Ranson, BBSRC (Aug 2014), £355,253

Stuart Egginton, BHF (Aug 2014), £271,094

Darren Tomlinson, Mike McPherson, Technology Strategy Board (Aug 2014), £98,665

Peter Henderson, Leverhulme Trust (Aug 2014), £15,222

Mike McPherson (and colleagues in the School of Chemistry), EPSRC (Jul 2014), £819,880

Peter Stockley, Neil Ranson, BBSRC (Jul 2014), £455,787

Sheena Radford, Univesity of Michigan (Jul 2014), £138,452

Ryan Seipke, British Society Antimicrobial Chemistry (Jun 2014), £11,960

John Trinick, BHF (Jun 2014), £222,614

Chris West, Leverhulme Trust (Jun 2014), £181,241

Jon Lippiat, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (May 2014), £125,174

Christine Foyer, Royal Society (May 2014), £24,000

David Brockwell, Sheena Radford, Medimmune Ltd (Apr 2014), £337,661

Peter Stockley, Wellcome Trust (Apr 2014), £251,019

Mike McPherson, Wellcome Trust (Apr 2014), £146,596

Andrew Macdonald, Kidney Research Fund UK (Apr 2014), £127,237

Elwyn Isaac, DEFRA (Apr 2014), £126,512

Mike McPherson (and colleagues in School of Design), Technology Strategy Board (Apr 2014), £114,350

Paul Millner, Peter Stockley, Darren Tomlinson, YCR (Apr 2014), £95,874

Carrie Ferguson, Karen Birch, Shaunna Burke, Heart Research UK (Apr 2014), £60,140

Tim Benton, Technology Strategy Board (Apr 2014), £24,969

Bill Kunin, Technology Strategy Board (Apr 2014), £21,244

Dave Westhead, MRC (Apr 2014), £18,304

Brendan Davies, BBSRC (Mar 2014), £451,829

Jim Deuchars, MRC (Mar 2014), £300,000

Urwin, Howard Atkinson, British Potato Council (Mar 2014), £69,953

Adam Kupinski, Children with Cancer (Mar 2014), £50,000

Anastasia Zhuravleva, Royal Society (Mar 2014), £14,973

Urwin, Howard Atkinson, Agriculture & Horticulture Develpmnt Brd (Mar 2014), £13,990

Alison Baker, Steve Baldwin, BBSRC (Feb 2014), £403,439

Sarah Zylinski, BBSRC (Feb 2014), £355,869

Dave Lewis, Nigel Hooper, Tony Turner, Hugh Pearson, James Duce, Alzheimer's Society (Feb 2014), £29,871

Ronaldo Ichyama, Samit Chakrabarty, International Spinal Research Trust (Jan 2014), £304,600

Brendan Davies, BBSRC/Bayer Crop Science SA-NV (Jan 2014), £470,053

Adrian Goldman, Steve Baldwin, Stephen Muench, Thomas Edwards, Arwen Pearson , BBSRC (Jan 2014), £467,103

Stefan Kepinski, BBSRC (Jan 2014), £359,269

Elwyn Isaac, EU (Jan 2014), £179,445

Dave Westhead, Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (Jan 2014), £105,937

Eileen Ingham, Joanne Tipper, Depuy International Ltd (Jan 2014), £48,121

John Barr, Thomas Edwards, MRC (Dec 2013), £469,505

Alex O'Neill, MRC (Dec 2013), £349,017

Tim Benton, NERC (Dec 2013), £31,422

Darren Tomlinson, Yorkshire Cancer Research (Nov 2013), £142,334

Nikita Gamper, MRC (Nov 2013), £336,563

Keith Hamer, Alison Dunn, NERC (Nov 2013), £47,233

Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2013), £749,365

Urwin, Howard Atkinson, BBSRC (Oct 2013), £360,508

Eileen Ingham, Stacey-Paul Wilshaw, NHS R&D (Oct 2013), £356,623

Sheena Radford, BBSRC (Oct 2013), £329,906

Nigel Hooper, Alzheimer's Research (Oct 2013), £327,075

Eileen Ingham, EPSRC (Oct 2013), £276,751

David Beech, BHF (Oct 2013), £109,974

Mark Harris, Medical Research Foundation (Oct 2013), £34,455

James Dachtler, Royal Society (Oct 2013), £15,000

Ade Whitehouse, Teresa Rosenbaum Golden Charitable Trust (Oct 2013), £10,000

Jurgen Denecke, BBSRC (Sep 2013), £382,093

Andy Cuming, EU (Sep 2013), £257,714

Paul Knox, BBSRC (Sep 2013), £411,948

Vas Ponnambalam, Leverhulme Trust (Sep 2013), £245,031

Peter Meyer, EU (Sep 2013), £242,166

Dave Rowlands, Nic Stonehouse, EU (Sep 2013), £202,556

Derek Steele, BHF (Sep 2013), £103,629

Joan Boyes, NC3Rs (Sep 2013), £90,000

Howard Atkinson, National Banana Research Programme (Sep 2013), £52,933

Peter Stockley, Royal Society (Sep 2013), £11,400

Darren Tomlinson, Leverhulme Trust (Sep 2013), £5,645

Nic Stonehouse, Dave Rowlands, BBSRC (Aug 2013), £574,906

Recent News

‘Tickling’ your ear could be good for your heart

20th August 2014

Stimulating nerves in your ear could improve the health of your heart, researchers have discovered. more

Researchers find clue to stopping Alzheimer's-like diseases

2nd July 2014

Tiny differences in mice that make them peculiarly resistant to a family of conditions that includes Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease may provide clues for treatments in humans. more

Celebrating the work of a neglected scientific pioneer

18th June 2014

A University of Leeds academic has shed important new light on the fascinating story of a pioneer whose contribution to one of science's biggest discoveries has long been overlooked. more

Impact Stories

The Ponnambalam laboratory undertakes research relating to cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
more

Professor Paul Milner has led a team of scientists on a project to develop antibody-based biosensor technologies.
more

Professor Ian Chopra and Dr Alex O'Neill have shown that high levels of FA prevent the development of resistant bacteria.
more

Professor Ingham examinines the biological effects of wear particles from joint replacements.
more

All impact stories