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Device that measures nerve activity could help treat sepsis and PTSD




A team of engineers and physicians in the US has developed a device to non-invasively measure cervical nerve activity in humans.

The researchers from University of California San Diego believe that the new tool could potentially inform and improve treatments for patients with sepsis and mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Senior author Imanuel Lerman, MD, clinical professor of anaesthesiology at UC San Diego School of Medicine, said:

“For the first time, we have identified cervical electroneurographic evidence of autonomic (fight or flight versus rest and digest) biotypes that are remarkably consistent across different challenges to the autonomic or involuntary nervous system.”

The cervical vagus nerve runs from the gut to the brain and delivers information on the status of surrounding inner organs.

The nerve oversees crucial bodily functions like immune response and digestion and plays a role in major psychiatric conditions, such as mood and anxiety disorders.

The new device features a flexible array of electrodes that stretch from the lower front to the upper back of the neck, enabling researchers to capture electrical activity across different nerves.

An integrated user interface allows real-time visualisation of data and a custom algorithm groups individuals according to their nervous systems’ response to stress.

The flexible array can be worn for up to a day, moving easily with the patient’s head and neck movements.

To explore human autonomic biotype (groups of patients whose involuntary nervous systems responded similarly to stress), the researchers ran a series of tests that asked study participants to place and hold their hand in ice water, followed by a timed breathing exercise.

The deviceF recorded cervical nerve signalling before and after both the ice water challenge and during the breathing exercise.

Study participants fell consistently into two distinct biotype groups: those whose neural firing and heart rates increased during both tests and those whose neural firing and heart rates decreased.

The device’s unique algorithm identified differences in the response of specific nerve clusters to stressors, such as pain induced by the ice water, as well as physical symptoms, such as sweating and increased in heart rate associated with the timed breathing challenge.

Coleman said:

“The results are exciting.

“The array was capable of recording autonomic nervous system activity, and we were pleasantly surprised to observe consistent autonomic response across stress test challenges.

“More work is needed, however, to demonstrate our sensor capabilities in larger populations.”

While the electrode array could not identify the precise nerves firing in response to the stress and pain of the ice water challenge, the researchers said they hope it will one day aid in diagnosing and treating conditions like PTSD and sepsis.

The researchers now plan to integrate the array with additional hardware for a wireless, wearable sensor that can be deployed outside the laboratory.

They are developing plans for an in-hospital sepsis detection clinical trial.

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