Self-driving cars are one thing.
Now, engineers of medical technology are hoping to one day connect your organs to an app on your cell phone.
One of these scientific advances, in fact, is being designed to transmit “zaps” of short, electrical pulses via acupuncture needles into your vagus nerve and down to your pancreas.
The vagus nerve, also known as the “cranial nerve,” is one of 12 nerves that emerge directly from the brain and go to other parts of the body.
The vagus nerve travels to the abdomen by way of several vital organs, including the heart, esophagus, lungs, and stomach.
It’s an essential part of the involuntary nervous system in all mammals.
It manages bodily functions, including the digestion of food and maintaining a constant heart rate.
Vagus nerve stimulation
Stimulating the vagus nerve via electroacupuncture to treat a health condition isn’t new.
In Europe, it’s approved and widely used to treat epilepsy, depression, and some types of pain, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While the United States hasn’t progressed as far as Europe in approving this form of treatment, it’s being heavily researched in this country.
“Our bodies are a lot like rooms in a house,” said Luis Ulloa, an immunologist from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in the Trends in Molecular Medicine journal. “In order to see when you enter a darkened room, you need electricity to turn on the lights. Our body is like that room and has an electrical network that can be used to manipulate and help control how it works.”
Ulloa and his team began a study in 2014 transmitting short electrical pulses via acupuncture needles into mice with sepsis.
Prior to Ulloa’s treatment via electroacupuncture, there had been no successful way to treat or prevent this life-threatening infection that kills 250,000 Americans a year.
Use of this technology
Ulloa’s electroacupuncture work highlights the potential this form of treatment could have on other conditions, including diabetes.
A 2014 study published in the medical journal Acupuncture in Medicine and written by Phillip V. Peplow, reported: “The glucose-lowering effect and increased insulin sensitivity associated with EA-metformin administration is governed, at least in part, by its ability to stimulate the activation of GLUT4 via upregulation of MAPK expression.”
In layman’s terms, when combined with the most commonly prescribed diabetes medication, metformin, electroacupuncture demonstrated an increase in the body’s ability to properly transport glucose and thus maintain lower blood sugar levels in rats with insulin resistance.
Traditional acupuncture has been offered for decades as a potential treatment for insulin resistance and diabetes complications like neuropathy.
However, the research on these methods is still limited.
Ulloa is optimistic, stating that research has found nerve stimulation through electroacupuncture to “provide therapeutic benefit for treating colitis, diabetes, obesity, pancreatitis, paralysis, and life-threatening infections.”
The next step for electroacupuncture technology is in the newer and more advanced field of bioelectronic medicine.
This field is designed to treat chronic illness with electrical nerve stimulation via an implantable device to monitor the organ in need of treatment.
“All you have to do is look at the pacemaker and how it has enabled people with arrhythmias to live long lives,” said Ulloa. “We believe this type of medicine could be used throughout the body.”
So far, however, the majority of studies of this technology have been performed on animal models, not humans.
Ulloa explained that the next step — which isn’t a small one — is to compare the data from all nerve-stimulating procedures on humans to the recent experimental studies on animals.
When it comes to acupuncture, there’s still a degree of variance in how the treatment is performed due to the individual practitioner, explained Ulloa.
The practitioner’s background, expertise, and their ability to determine the precise and perhaps correct locations for the needles has an impact on the outcome of the treatment.
These variances trigger skepticism in diabetes practitioners such as Dr. Stephen Ponder, FAAP, CDE who’s known well in the diabetes community for his diabetes guidebook, Sugar Surfing.
“Like any other new application (which would stand to financially benefit the practitioners of this method), I would like to see well-conducted, objective, randomized, controlled trials showing benefit, and for a procedure for the proper use of this methodology for diabetes,” Ponder told Healthline.
“It's also important to never forget the power of the placebo effect with any therapy,” he added.
Ponder also suspects the chances of varying results, seeing some patients benefit while others do not.
“It might not just be the experience of the practitioner or the precision of the needles, but the receptivity or suggestibility of the patient to this form of therapy,” he said.
And the most important factor to consider, explained Ponder, is that type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease, which means there will be beta cell loss or decreased function over time. Beta cells are the cells within the pancreas responsible for the production of insulin.
“This would be expected to impact outcomes,” Ponder said.
Despite these legitimate variables, Ulloa insists pursuing this treatment method and future technology development is worthwhile.
“In the future, I believe we will be connected to the cell phone in order to control our organ functions,” he said.