Vagus Nerve Stimulation — An Antidote to Depression?

Vagus Nerve Stimulation — An Antidote to DepressionNever heard of the vagus nerve? You’re not alone. The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve, and connects the brain to the neck, chest, and abdomen. It gets little press because it controls the autonomic nervous system, the functions your body does without thinking about it, like breathing and pumping your blood.

But the vagus nerve has found itself in the news lately — and in a most unusual place. A study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry has found that stimulation of the vagus nerve can radically improve quality of life in people with severe, treatment-resistant depression.

Depression is often called the common cold of mental illness, and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that it afflicts nearly 7% of adults in the United States. There are a variety of treatments for depression, including psychotherapy and a variety of antidepressant medications. Severe cases of depression are often treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which delivers controlled electrical shocks to the brain; or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which uses electromagnets to stimulate the region of the brain associated with mood control.

For many people, these treatments are not enough. And that is where vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) comes in. VNS sends electric signals to the vagus nerve and, perhaps surprisingly, has been shown to dramatically improve the quality of life of people whose depression was resistant to other therapies.

In the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry study, participants receiving treatment-as-usual (TAU), including ECT and TMS, were compared to those receiving VNS alone and VNS in conjunction with TAU.

The results were dramatic: receiving both groups received VNS experienced at least a 50% reduction in a variety of quality-of-life measurements. These measurements included mood, family relationships, the ability to work, interest in leisure activities, as well as overall well-being.

Why would stimulation of the vagus nerve accomplish this? One of the study’s authors, Dr. Charles R. Conway, believes that vagus nerve stimulation improves alertness, which is part of the autonomic nervous system regulated by the vagus nerve. The increase in alertness, he believes, may lead to an increased feeling of energy and interest in life, as well as an increased ability to follow a daily routine. All of these feelings are associated with declines in the depressive feelings that often leave the person uninterested in life or unable to participate in regular activities.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation is not yet part of treatment-as-usual, but as more studies show its effectiveness, it may help cure depression, a condition that robs so many people of joy in life.

At Hamilton Grove Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, in Hamilton, NJ, we take joy very seriously — we incorporate it into every aspect of our care — our roster of interesting activities, our beautifully landscaped grounds, our upbeat staff, and our focus on helping seniors live their best possible life.

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