Is the vagus nerve the key to treating autoimmune arthritis?

The vagus nerve is a long nerve that runs between the brain and the neck, chest, and abdomen. It allows the brain to monitor and receive information about several of the body's different functions.

A team at Stanford University, led by Dr. Mark Genovese, has been able to reduce the symptoms of autoimmune disease by electrostimulation of the vagus nerve. 

It works by controlling an inflammatory reflex in the vagus nerve. This reduces the body’s production of cytokines, including molecules called tumor necrosis factor (TNF). 

People with chronic joint pain may have excess TNF in their bloodstream, which causes inflammation. 

Many autoimmune arthritis patients already take drugs that target TNF. These include biologic drugs like Humira, Remicade and Enbrel.

The Stanford team carried out a 12-week patient study with people who had not responded well to existing arthritis medications. 

The patients had a small MicroRegulator device implanted in their bodies to stimulate the vagus nerve.

The study results showed that the MicroRegulator device reduced cytokine levels by 30 percent. 

"Our pilot study suggests this novel MicroRegulator device is well tolerated and reduces signs and symptoms of [Autoimmune Disease]," says Dr. Mark Genovese, the James W. Raitt Endowed Professor of Medicine at Stanford University in California, USA.

This is promising news for arthritis patients. While further studies are needed, this research opens up a new treatment route that avoids the side-effects associated with existing biologic medications.

"This is a really exciting development. These results open the door to a novel approach to treating chronic inflammatory diseases. This is certainly an area for further study,"  said Prof. Thomas Dörner, Chairperson of the Scientific Programme Committee at the Annual European Congress of Rheumatology.