- A clip is attached to each ear to zap the vagus nerve with a mild electric shock
Clips that ‘tickle’ a nerve in the ear could be the secret to losing weight. Research suggests zapping the vagus nerve here with a mild electric current sends a signal to the brain that the stomach is full, curbing appetite.
Now a trial involving 150 people who are obese is under way in Russia, to see if it can help them lose weight without drugs or surgery.
More than one in four adults in England is classed as obese and another 38 per cent overweight.
Treatment usually begins with advice on dieting and increasing physical activity.
A new generation of weight-loss drugs – such as Wegovy – are also being prescribed to some obese people, defined as having a BMI of over 30, who have at least one obesity-related health condition, such as type 2 diabetes.
Clips that ‘tickle’ a nerve in the ear could be the secret to losing weight by sending a signal to the brain that the stomach is full, curbing appetite
The drugs – given as once-weekly injections – slow down the movement of food in the gut, making you feel fuller for longer.
Around 6,500 people a year currently undergo obesity surgery on the NHS.
This usually involves either fitting a band around the stomach to reduce the amount of food it can hold, or a gastric bypass —where the top of the stomach is joined to the small intestine, reducing the amount of calories absorbed from food.
But the ear-tickling therapy could be a more straightforward approach. It involves attaching a clip to each ear to stimulate a branch of the vagus nerve.
This is a major nerve that runs up through the chest and neck and into the brain and is involved in controlling everything from taste and swallowing to managing heart rate, breathing and digestion.
More than one in four adults in England is classed as obese and another 38 per cent overweight
In recent years, vagus nerve stimulation has become a powerful treatment for epilepsy and depression.
And animal studies have found stimulators that target the vagus nerve can trigger weight loss by sending signals that trick the brain into thinking the stomach is full.
Worn on both ears and connected to a battery-powered generator on the waistband, the clips on trial are attached to the auricular concha — the shell-like cavity in the middle of the ear that leads towards the ear canal, where a small branch of the vagus nerve can be found just beneath the skin.
The current trial being run by scientists at Moscow State University of Medicine and Dentistry, involves obese men and women.
Half are getting ten minutes of ear stimulation before main meals every day for six months.
The rest of the groups are getting a sham treatment — where they also wear the clips but no current is passed through them to stimulate the nerve.
Volunteers are being monitored to see how much weight they lose during the six-month experiment.
The results of the trial could be available later this year.
Dr Duncan Banks, a neuroscientist at the Open University, said ear stimulation is worth investigating as a way of tackling obesity, given that it’s non-invasive and appears to be safe.
‘But it’s not clear yet exactly how it works and at the moment it’s definitely not a substitute for other obesity therapies,’ he said.