Scientists Discover Details About the Vagus Nerve that May Lead to Treating Painful Autoimmune Diseases

Scientists Discover Details About the Vagus Nerve that May Lead to Treating Painful Autoimmune Diseases

By Staff

Scientists have discovered more details about how the vagus nerve interacts with the immune system, which may lead to treatment for autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and lupus.  The researchers from the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research say they will have a much better understanding how “bioelectronic medicine” may treat painful diseases.

By mapping the mechanisms of the vagus nerve and identifying new neural pathways that the vagus nerve signals to the rest of the body, researchers can now focus their attention on using bioeletronic medicine to activate the newly revealed pathways and treat a wide variety of conditions and diseases.  The results of this discovery are part of a new study published in Bioelectronic Medicine.

“We know from previous studies that the vagus nerve is a conduit for signals from many of our vital organs and that it has a role in reporting changes in inflammation to the brain,” said Feinstein Institute investigator Patricio T. Huerta, PhD, also associate professor of molecular medicine at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine and corresponding author of the paper.  “Our new finding clearly shows that the vagus nerve carries immune-related signals, which makes it a good target for bioelectronic treatment for autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and lupus.”

The nervous system sends signals through the body to control organ and cell function. Nerves connect to different organs and send signals to the brain to maintain normal function and also to alert to issues such as infection and inflammation.  The emerging field of bioelectronic medicine is looking to harness these neural signals to help the body heal itself.

The key to successfully tapping into these neural signals is having a full understanding of how different receptors within each nerve trigger different reactions in the body.  This information can be used to identify the different mechanisms to treat a condition, while helping medical professionals to identify if their stimulation has an effect on other bodily functions.

In the study, titled Cytokine-specific Neurograms in the Sensory Vagus Nerve, Dr. Huerta looked at how the vagus nerve responds to the presence of elevated levels of cytokines in the body.  Cytokines are small proteins that are especially important in the function of the immune system.

“In this study, we were looking to sharpen our understanding of what makes the vagus nerve sense the immune response,” said Dr. Huerta. “We devised an electrode setup to record down to the vagus fibers that are activated by the cytokines. We found that similar to how the brain perceives and interprets colors differently, each cytokine is perceived and interpreted by the vagus nerve differently.”

Dr. Huerta’s team profiled the vagus nerve’s reaction in an animal model to two pro-inflammatory cytokines — tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and interleukin-1β.  The mice normally have very low levels of the cytokines being profiled in their bodies.  Researchers put the cytokines into their bodies, which activated the vagus nerve, which in turn sent signals (called action potentials) regarding their elevated level to the central nervous system.  Each cytokine activated signals at different frequencies within the nerve.  Now having a method to record the different fibers of the vagus nerve, the scientists will continue to catalog the different signals of the vagus nerve and what they control in the body.  These findings can all be used to find targets to treat disease with bioelectronic medicine devices.

“Dr. Huerta and his team’s method of recording signals and identifying pathways within the nerve fiber opens up many new possibilities for our research teams to apply bioelectronic medicine to these nerves and treat many diseases and conditions,” said Kevin J. Tracey, MD, president/CEO of the Feinstein Institute and associate dean for research at the School of Medicine.

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is most often used to treat epilepsy when other treatments haven’t worked.  VNS is also a treatment for hard-to-treat depression that hasn’t responded to typical therapies.  Based on this new research, it appears that VNS therapy may move down a path towards treating autoimmune conditions, as well.

Subscribe to our blog via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Authored by: Staff

newest oldest
Notify of
Kristine (Krissy) Anderson

Thanks, Lisa. I just put in a request on the FB page you linked to. I am like you, researching, writing and listening.

Lisa Elliott

I’d love to know what the authors of this study think about Dr. Michael Van ElZakker’s nerve infection hypothesis. If it holds up the NIH could be a really valuable dimension to this model. I agree with Bob, above, that the report of different frequencies being related to different physiological responses is really intriguing.

I also study the stress and trauma of the functioning of the ANS (as an informed layperson). Trauma, broadly defined, is the elephant in the room for any studies of the ANS and disease. Check out the Vagus Study Group on FB for an ongoing exploration of all issues related to the Vagus.

Jimmy Kayastha, DDS, MS

Implanted VNS do not require antibiotic prophylaxis prior to dental procedure. Best to obtain thorough med. hx and report any suspected abuse. Abuse is common in pts. w developmental disabilities and often manifest in oral trauma. Additional Resrources: NIH Institute of Epilepsy, ASTDD-Special Needs

Thanks for the article! It will be great to see this started in human trials for auto-immune.

Deborah Fochler

I fell in 1990 and suffered multiple spinal cord fractures. But the most damage was caused because I was on high dose heparin. Later, that year I had multiple surgeries to try to correct some of the damage I did. That went badly leaving me with damage to the vegas nerve as well as horrible pain. This is now 2017 and I can only eat a very small amount of food without just getting horribly sick. A few years ago I got diagnosed with auto-immune vasculitis. Maybe these are related.


Yes, same thought, though we with FM never get our cytokines measured though I don’t know how easily that is done.


Jennifer, Google “vagus nerve and fibromyalgia” You’ll be amazed. The vagus nerve and the possibilities for treatment are being well-discussed and treatment is being offered in integrative medicine, so it’s worth looking into what is happening there. It’s a big subject, just as the article above says. Like Jean mentioned, it affects so many parts of the body, and I believe we’ll see a lot about the possibilities of treatments in short time. Of course the government has studied this for many years, but they are slow, so while it’s nothing new, findings are coming out through new research apart from government study more and more. This is a great thing for discussion here as there may be many benefits for many of our situations. I don’t know what traditional doctors are doing or thinking, but I do know that the integrative medical people are really on top of this subject. Once again, however, the expense is going to put us in difficult situations, as there may be wonderful things available, but insurance won’t cover treatments until government decides on profitability.

Jean Price

The vagus nerve affects so many things in the body, it would be nothing short of a miracle if science could lead to influencing/manipulating it for therapeutic purposes! In the Dark Ages, when I was in nursing school, vagotomies (cutting the vagus nerve) were routinely scheduled for treating gastric problems and stomach ulcers! Of course this method has its drawbacks, since it reflect a permanent change in body function where acid production and the digestive system are concerned. I doubt this is used routinely any more! (Along with the hourly ounces of “half and half” they used to soothe the stomach!).

Those with rheumatoid arthritis in the clavicle areas and the neck and upper spine areas likely have vagus nerve impingement to add to the inflammatory responses triggered by this nerve. This whole area of research could become a major component of pain treatment, it seems. Since pain involves so much more than the localized area of the pain. I hope it’s well funded…perhaps they could funnel some of the CDC’s wasted millions into this line of research. This line of research stands a better chance of reducing the ACTUAL NEED for pain medication than any of their gestapo efforts TO MERELY REDUCE THE PRESCRIBING! In a perfect world, it would happen. Or maybe even in a country that didn’t have some of the people with personal agendas like we seem to have in the CDC!


The D.E.A. and F.D.A. both stand in defiance of Congress and also the Senate as well as the majorty of citizens. Because of the misuse and abuse of responsibility and credibility as well as incompetence and refusal to reform the enforcement power of the D.E.A. should be removed and placed back into the hands of the state. A semi-secret elite police force within what is already a police state is way over the top. America does not need this throwback to the cold war era. These Federal offices have become a haven of renegade Authoritarian despots and tyrants commandeering and miss-directing hundreds of millions even billions into their drug war against American citizens and likewise funding state police regimes both within the U.S. and worldwide.It is these federal agency’s that have created the drug problem solely to commandeer funding and as their power base. Well in excess of sixty percent of F.D.A. employees are lured into going to work for the pharmaceutical industry. The D.E.A. is no more than an arm of the pharmaceutical industry. These renegade authoritarians as well as the pro drug war Authoritarians in the F.B.I. need to be controlled or removed

Bob Schubring

What’s surprising is the finding that frequencies are used to distinguish different kinds of information, in these nerves.

Heretofore, the standard model of nerves was akin to a fire-alarm circuit. The circuit was On or else it was Off. If some doofus wired 5 alarm-boxes to the same bell, firemen would have to visit all 5 boxes to look for a person who wanted to report a fire. Which meant, in turn, that to get quicker responses took lots and lots of individual wires.

The cable-TV system in homes, uses frequencies to distinguish information. Dozens of homes can share the same TV cable, because Internet and TV information gets sent with frequency encoding, so that only information sent to one house, reaches that house.

This finding says that our nerves are considerably more advanced, than was previously thought. The same vagus nerve fiber conveys information about each different kind of cytokine, by assigning it a frequency. This implies that much more information is moving through those nerves, than anyone previously would have guessed.

Since the sympathetic nerve system also connects to multiple organs and influences them oppositely to the vagus nerves…the vagus nerve relaxes the body and the sympathetic nerve wakes the body up…it would be intriguing to learn if similar mechanisms operate on it, as well.

Jennifer Burkel

Could this treatment also be applied to those with Fibromayalgia? If so, could you give a vague projection of when it will be available?