Can an earbud-size device wirelessly treat hypertension, pain, depression, or stroke? Vitaly Napadow, PhD, a researcher in the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Integrative Pain Neuroimaging at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, believes that someday in the future, it may.

His lab is working with Cala Health, Inc. to develop and test such devices, expanding on the earlier success of so-called neuromodulation approaches in patients with epilepsy. Those treatments involve the vagus nerve, responsible for regulating digestion, blood pressure, and breathing rate from its nerve circuit starting in the brain. Researchers now know there are vagus nerve receptors in a specific part of the ear that can be stimulated non-surgically to target certain nerves and rhythms for better health.

Vitaly Napadow, PhD (left), uses a prototype to demonstrate placement of his nerve stimulation device.

“Our novel approach to improve the targeting of these surface receptors is to time the nerve stimulation to the respiratory cycle,” Dr. Napadow says. “This whole brain/vagus loop may be sensitive to the body’s breathing cycles, much like our heart rate speeds up whenever we breathe in and slows down whenever we breathe out.”

His plan is to target these surface receptors with a device in the ear programmed to monitor breathing. Then, based on which phase of the respiratory cycle a person is in, the device is programmed to decide when to provide nerve stimulation.

Recently, Dr. Napadow received a large grant from the National Institutes of Health to study whether mindfulness training, focused in part on breathing, may enhance the efficacy and brain targeting of his respiration-gated approach to stimulating the vagus nerve. And vice versa, his respiratory-gated approach may enhance the effect of mindfulness training.

There is much potential for a wearable device that will non-invasively help people stay pain-free or healthy, he points out. “But much more research remains to be done to see which patients will benefit, and from which specific approach.”

Read more on the research here.

Image via Massachusetts General Hospital