A Walkman-like gadget that clips onto a person’s ears and zaps their brain with electric pulses is twice as effective at reducing blood pressure than medication, an expert believes.
Around 14 million people in the UK have high blood pressure, and research shows around 40 per cent of patients do not take medication as instructedleading scientists to look for other forms of control.
The small handheld device attaches to the tragus on the ear and sends waves of electricity into the brain, targeting the vagus nerve, which controls many of the body’s subconscious processes, including heart rate, immune system, mood and blood pressure.
Alexander Gourine, a professor of physiology at UCL, said at the Cheltenham Science Festival that in a proof-of-concept trial of the device on 30 people, half an hour a day of ear-tingling brain stimulation for a few weeks led to decreases in blood pressure.
Treatment is non-invasive
Because the treatment is non-invasive, the device can be used while sitting watching TV, reading a book, or at your desk.
Blood pressure is measured using two numbers, one on top of the other, which reveal the pressure when the heart is contracting and when it is relaxed. The former is called systolic pressure which is the bigger number said first. Both are measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg).
Systolic blood pressure is the number which doctors are most interested in when it comes to hypertension, and if it reaches 140, the NHS would call that high blood pressure. Ideally, it should hover around 90 mmHg.
Prof Gourine said that medication, such as ACE inhibitors, can reduce blood pressure by around eight to 10 units on average, but he believes this device could almost double this effect size to between 10 and 15 units.
In a discussion with Prof Mark Lythgoe, the founder and director of the Center for Advanced Biomedical Imaging (CABI) at UCL, Prof Gourine said the electrical signals weave down through the brain towards the “ancient circuits” and down throughout the body via the vagus nervous.
This alters the functioning of the nerve but wears off slowly over a few months. The device can be reused to retrain the nerve once more and, in theory, the cycle can run indefinitely.
“It controls the heart and changes over a long time how your heart is operating and also your blood vessels, lowering blood pressure,” Prof Gourine said.
Remains an ‘experimental treatment’
The scientists are not entirely sure why stimulating the brain can lead to a decrease in system-wide blood pressure reduction, but believe it may be due to something called the “selfish brain hypothesis”.
“There is a school of thought that your blood pressure goes up as a compensation for reduced brain blood flow,” Prof Gourine said.
“From the age of around 25 our cerebral blood flow decreases by about five per cent every decade, at the same time your blood pressure creeps up by about five to seven per hundred every decade.”
The device, called AffeX and built by a company called Afferent, appears to also improve sleep, is expected to cost around £20 when on the market and could be available in two years’ time. A clinical trial involving roughly 100 people is being conducted with more than £1million of NHS funding.
Prof Sir Nilesh Samani, the medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “This approach to lowering blood pressure has been investigated by scientists for a number of years. At the moment it remains an experimental treatment and there isn’t enough evidence yet for it to be recommended as part of routine clinical practice.
“If you have been prescribed blood pressure lowering medication by your GP you should continue to take it as normal.