Tickling the ear with a small electric current may rebalance the nervous system in over-55s and help them age more healthily, a study claims.
Scientists at the University of Leeds in the UK found that a short daily therapy delivered for two weeks led to physiological wellbeing, including a better quality of life, mood and sleep.
The therapy, called transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation, delivers a small, painless electrical current to the ear, which sends signals to the body's nervous system through the vagus nerve.
The new research, published in the journal Aging, suggests the therapy may slow down an important effect associated with ageing.
This could help protect people from chronic diseases which we become more prone to as we get older, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and atrial fibrillation.
The researchers suggest that the 'tickle' therapy has the potential to help people age more healthily, by recalibrating the body's internal control system.
"The ear is like a gateway through which we can tinker with the body's metabolic balance, without the need for medication or invasive procedures. We believe these results are just the tip of the iceberg," said Beatrice Bretherton, from the University of Leeds.
"We are excited to investigate further into the effects and potential long-term benefits of daily ear stimulation, as we have seen a great response to the treatment so far," Bretherton said.
The autonomic nervous system controls many of the body's functions which don't require conscious thought, such as digestion, breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.
It contains two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, which work against each other to maintain a healthy balance of activity.
As we age, and when we are fighting diseases, the body's balance changes such that the sympathetic branch begins to dominate.
This imbalance makes us more susceptible to new diseases and leads to the breakdown of healthy bodily function as we get older.
Clinicians have long been interested in the potential for using electrical currents to influence the nervous system.
The vagus nerve, the major nerve of the parasympathetic system, has often been used for electrical stimulation and past research has looked at the possibility of using vagus nerve stimulation to tackle depression, epilepsy, obesity, stroke, tinnitus and heart conditions.
However, this kind of stimulation needs surgery to implant electrodes in the neck region, with associated expense and a small risks of side effects.
However, there is one small branch of the vagus nerve that can be stimulated without surgery, located in the skin of specific parts of the outer ear.
Previous research has shown that applying a small electrical stimulus to the vagus nerve at the ear, which some people perceive as a tickling sensation, improves the balance of the autonomic nervous system in healthy 30-year-olds.
Other researchers worldwide are now investigating if this transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) could provide a therapy for conditions ranging from heart problems to mental health.
In their new study, scientists wanted to see whether tVNS could benefit over 55-year-olds, who are more likely to have out-of-balance autonomic systems that could contribute to health issues associated with ageing.
They recruited 29 healthy volunteers, aged 55 or above, and gave each of them the tVNS therapy for 15 minutes per day, over a two week period.
Participants were taught to self-administer the therapy at home during the study.
The therapy led to an increase in parasympathetic activity and a decrease in sympathetic activity, rebalancing the autonomic function towards that associated with healthy function.
In addition, some people reported improvements in measures of mental health and sleeping patterns.
Being able to correct this balance of activity could help us age more healthily, as well as having the potential to help people with a variety of disorders such as heart disease and some mental health issues, researchers said.
Improving the balance of the autonomic nervous system also lowers an individual's risk of death, as well as the need for medication or hospital visits, they said.