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Viva vagus: Wandering nerve could lead to range of therapies

Zapping the 10th cranial nerve may treat arthritis, heart failure, headaches and more

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2:00pm, November 13, 2015
illustration of the vagus nerve

WHAT NERVE  The vagus nerve’s path from brain to heart and other organs was detailed by the Greek anatomist Galen, a leading physician of the Roman Empire in the second century.

With outposts in nearly every organ and a direct line into the brain stem, the vagus nerve is the nervous system’s superhighway. About 80 percent of its nerve fibers — or four of its five “lanes” — drive information from the body to the brain. Its fifth lane runs in the opposite direction, shuttling signals from the brain throughout the body.

Doctors have long exploited the nerve’s influence on the brain to combat epilepsy and depression. Electrical stimulation of the vagus through a surgically implanted device has already been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a therapy for patients who don’t get relief from existing treatments.

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