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British researchers recently announced the development of an easily implantable microchip to control the vagus nerve, which regulates passage of food through the digestive tract, as a weight control device.

Wouldn't it be nice if controlling your appetite so you could take off the weight was as easy as flipping a switch? That's the general idea behind the development of an implantable microchip for the vagus nerve recently announced in Britain.

The Amazing Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is the tenth of the twelve paired cranial nerves. It extends from the medulla of the brain downward between the jugular vein and the carotid artery and then down through the neck, chest, and abdomen. Its task is to transmit messages between the brain and the internal organs. 

The transfer of information along the vagus nerve is two-way traffic. The brain sends instructions to the internal organs, but the internal organs also send subconscious information to the brain. Unlike, say, the production of stress hormones, the heart and the digestive tract to a certain extent act as if they have a brain of their own, as they generate the feelings that sometimes take precedence over rational thought.

Safety, Security, and Appetite

The anatomy of the vagus nerve is such that, among its other functions, it is particularly stimulated by a hug. In general, any kind of "freezing" behavior is mediated through vagal connections. 

Human beings are "pre-programmed" to protect themselves by fight, flight, or freezing in place. Many social connections, however, also involve immobilization. A baby nursing at mother's breast, or friends greeting each other with a hug, or a couple making love, all perform "freezing" behavior controlled, in part, by the vagus nerve. Whether someone is eager to hug or shies away from a hug (or sex) depends in part in how the vagus nerve is "toned."

Food Is a Hug from the Inside Out

Filling up the stomach is analogous to a hug from the inside out. The vagus nerve tells us whether it's "safe" to get the "hug" from eating our fill, or whether a meal should be avoided. Changing the strength of vagal nerve activity, therefore, stimulates or interferes with appetite.

Physicians have known for at least 20 years that installing various kinds of electronic vagal pacemakers on the vagus nerve could help patients with uncontrollable eating disorders. The latest innovation from the UK, however, is a pacemaker in the form of a tiny electronic chip that does not require complicated surgery to install.

The new microchip technology involves attaching the chip to the vagus nerve in the abdomen with cuff electrodes. It's a far less invasive and less expensive procedure than gastric bypass surgery, and because it regulates feeling of fullness rather than the size of the digestive tract, it allows normal production of the intrinsic factor that helps the body absorb vitamin B12 and normal absorption of vitamins and minerals.

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  • EMPOWER Study Group. The EMPOWER study: randomized, prospective, double-blind, multicenter trial of vagal blockade to induce weight loss in morbid obesity. Obes Surg. 2012 Nov.22(11):1771-82. doi: 10.1007/s11695-012-0751-8.
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  • Photo courtesy of fdecomite on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/fdecomite/8157597343

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