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New treatment for auto-immune diseases in the works

Clinical trials using implants have already begun.

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By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

Zapping the neck could treat arthritis and other auto-immune diseases, according to new research.

The therapy targets the vagus nerve through which the brain dampens inflammation which damages cells and triggers chronic illnesses.

Stimulating it with electrical pulses can reduce symptoms or slow the progression of conditions ranging from epilepsy to inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis, according to a new study.

Experiments on mice identified the receptors that detect inflammation - and help keep it in check.

They signal to the brain when inflammatory responses need to be turned off.

Clinical trials using implants have already begun. Future treatments could use ultra-selective stimulators that act only on specific receptors, suggest the team.

Lead author Dr. Kevin Tracey, of the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in New York, said: "We didn't know what activated the brakes."

The lab tests involved eight rodents - half of which had been genetically engineered to lack a receptor in the vagus nerve sensitive to inflammatory molecules.

The main drivers of inflammation are proteins called cytokines. They were injected with a type known to induce changes in body temperature.

The genetically engineered mice maintained their temperature while the others developed hypothermia, suggesting the receptors are necessary for the body to detect inflammation.

Next, the researchers injected a toxic molecule into another 19 mice to induce a 'cytokine storm' in which overproduction causes life-threatening inflammation.

The phenomenon occurs in serious cases of COVID-19.

They activated vagus nerve receptors in 10 of the mice using optogenetics, a technique to turn cells on and off using light.

These mice produced half as many cytokines on average - and saw reduced inflammatory damage, reports New Scientist.

The results could guide the development of new therapies for people with chronic conditions, said Dr. Tracey.

Inflammation can happen anywhere inside the body. Autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease and multiple sclerosis.

Currently, the best treatments are drugs that can come with nasty side effects.

The vagus nerve connects the brain to the major organs including the heart, the lungs, the liver and the spleen.

It contains around 100,000 nerve fibers - and is believed to hold the key to a host of diseases.

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