Is this the answer to heartburn? Scientists develop hi-tech ear bud that stimulates a nerve and helps the stomach to empty more quickly
An ear bud that helps the stomach empty faster can reduce indigestion, according to a study by Harvard Medical School.
The tiny device could offer a non-invasive, drug-free alternative for the problem, which affects around 40 per cent of adults in the UK.
Indigestion is often caused by stomach acid irritating the stomach lining or the gullet — it can lead to heartburn, a sense of fullness, bloating and nausea.
The standard advice for those affected is to cut down on caffeine and fizzy drinks, as these can irritate the valve at the bottom of the gullet, allowing stomach acid to spill up.
Indigestion is often caused by stomach acid irritating the stomach lining or the gullet — it can lead to heartburn, a sense of fullness, bloating and nausea [File photo]
Some medications, including antacids, can help by neutralising stomach acid or, in the case of drugs known as proton pump inhibitors, by reducing its production altogether. Patients may also be advised to lose weight.
A new study suggests that a high-tech ear bud can help. The device is a form of transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulator and works by sending small electrical pulses to stimulate the vagus nerve, the main nerve connecting the brain to the body. This has a number of functions in the body, including in digestion, heart rate and mood.
Previous studies have shown that stimulating this nerve can help with conditions ranging from blood pressure to epilepsy, rheumatoid arthritis, depression and insomnia.
The new treatment targets a branch of the nerve that is easy to reach via the ear. The suggestion is that stimulating this helps move food more quickly from the stomach.
Some medications, including antacids, can help by neutralising stomach acid or, in the case of drugs known as proton pump inhibitors, by reducing its production altogether [File photo]
In the trial, the researchers used a vagus nerve stimulator device that creates pulses that match the rhythm of the wearer’s breathing. This boosts activity in areas of the brain linked to digestion.
The electrical pulses are short (around one second each), painless, and delivered with each exhaled breath.
The researchers studied the effects of the technology on nine patients after they had eaten the same meal, wearing the device or a placebo version in one ear. The patients then underwent MRI scans of their stomachs 15, 65 and 80 minutes after the meal while the stimulator was switched on.
The standard advice for those affected is to cut down on caffeine and fizzy drinks, as these can irritate the valve at the bottom of the gullet, allowing stomach acid to spill up
The scans revealed how much space there was around the food, an indication of how full their stomachs were, and a sign of discomfort.
According to the results, published in the journal The Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology, when the real gadget was used there was significantly more space in the participants’ stomachs.
Laurence Lovat, a professor of gastroenterology at University College London, says: ‘The initial data on this device is interesting, although larger studies would be needed.’
He adds: ‘One problem could be that the vagus nerve affects many different body functions, so if you were to accidentally stimulate the wrong area, you could see unintended effects such as altered bowel habits, or even fainting.’
Vagus nerve stimulation via the ear could also help patients with Covid-19, suggest scientists at the Hospital Virgen del Carmen in Argentina, who have just started trialling the treatment on around 50 coronavirus patients with pneumonia.
Previous research has shown that stimulating the vagus nerve can reduce the body’s inflammatory response to infection — Covid-19 can cause a ‘cytokine storm’, where proteins produced by immune cells to help tackle infection go into overdrive, leading to lung problems and death. It’s hoped the new treatment will suppress this response.
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At-home test to save eyesight
Patients with glaucoma may be able to avoid hospital visits, thanks to a new test.
The condition can lead to loss of sight and check-ups are needed, sometimes twice a year. Scientists at City, University of London, have developed an at-home test using a tablet device.
The patient looks at the screen and presses a button in response to flashes of light. In a trial, 20 patients used the tablet for six months — undergoing a test in hospital at the start and end of the study.
The at-home results compared well against hospital tests, reported the American Journal of Ophthalmology, offering a potential new way to monitor patients.
Cancer drug for angina
A prostate cancer drug is being tested as a treatment for microvascular angina, where tiny blood vessels in the heart narrow or spasm, leading to chest pain.
It’s more common in women, particularly around the menopause, possibly due to a drop in the hormone oestrogen.
In a trial at the University of Glasgow, around 350 people will be given cancer drug zibotentan or a placebo.
Zibotentan was first developed to prevent tumour cell growth by inhibiting the chemical endothelin, which causes vessel walls to narrow.
The theory is it will relax the blood vessels that spasm in microvascular angina.
Pain in the face is often diagnosed as sinusitis. This is when the cavities behind the nose, cheeks and forehead that produce mucus become inflamed and swell.
The confusion occurs since migraine can cause blockage of the sinuses. As a result, patients may be mistakely sent to an ear, nose and throat specialist, says Nick Silver, a consultant neurologist at the Walton Centre NHS Trust in London.
‘Migraine can be felt in the jaw, teeth and down the nose. What makes it a migraine rather than, say, sinusitis, is that pain is felt on both sides of the face. Nerve pain would be on just one side — migraine jumps from side to side.’
Using smartphones at night may reduce fertility, say researchers in the journal Chronobiology International. They found a correlation between the use of light-emitting devices in bed and sperm quality — it’s thought the light affects melatonin, a hormone that may have a role in male reproduction.
How to do the perfect…Plank.
DO: Start by lying on a solid surface, elbows near your sides, forearms on the floor and toes tucked under. Raise your body weight so that you rest on your forearms and the balls of your feet, your body forming a straight line.
Gently squeeze the muscles in your bottom and thighs and push your heels together. Make sure your bottom and trunk aren’t sinking downwards and keep your neck in line with your body.
Hold for 20 seconds and gradually increase the duration — but never strain.
DON’T: The worst thing is to tense your back muscles, says Roger Kerry, a physiotherapist and an associate professor at the University of Nottingham.
‘It makes your hips sink towards the floor, which strains the back.’ Holding your breath and clenching face muscles exacerbates this tension.
Start by lying on a solid surface, elbows near your sides, forearms on the floor and toes tucked under [File photo]
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