Zap to the head leads to fat loss

Stimulating vestibular nerve to reduce obesity shows promise in small study

person measuring waist

TRUNK TRIM  People who received stimulation of the vestibular nerve, which runs just behind the ears, lost on average about 8 percent of the fat on their trunks in four months.


SAN DIEGO — A nerve-zapping headset caused people to shed fat in a small preliminary study.

Six people who had received the stimulation lost on average about 8 percent of the fat on their trunks in four months, scientists reported November 12 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

The headset stimulated the vestibular nerve, which runs just behind the ears. That nerve sends signals to the hypothalamus, a brain structure thought to control the body’s fat storage. By stimulating the nerve with an electrical current, the technique shifts the body away from storing fat toward burning it, scientists propose.

Six overweight and obese people received the treatment, consisting of up to four one-hour-long sessions of stimulation a week. Because it activates the vestibular system, the stimulation evoked the sensation of gently rocking on a boat or floating in a pool, said study coauthor Jason McKeown of the University of California, San Diego.

After four months, body scans measured the trunk body fat for the six people receiving the treatment and three people who received sham stimulation. All six in the treatment group lost some trunk fat, despite not having changed their activity or diet. In contrast, those in the sham group gained some fat. Researchers suspect that metabolic changes are behind the difference. “The results were a lot better than we thought they’d be,” McKeown said.

Earlier studies had found that vestibular nerve stimulation causes mice to drop fat and pack on muscle, resulting in what McKeown called Schwarzenegger mice. Though small, the current study suggests that the approach has promise in people. McKeown and colleagues have started a company based on the technology and plan to test it further, he said.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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