For the treatment of PTSD and sepsis, researchers develop a unique instrument to assess nerve activity

researchers develop a unique instrument to assess nerve activity
Credit: Scientific Reports (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-21817-w

For the treatment of PTSD and sepsis, researchers develop a unique instrument to assess nerve activity

The cervical nerve activity of humans may now be non-invasively measured thanks to a new technology created by a multi-campus research team. The device, which was reported in a Scientific Reports publication, may be used to assist more individualized treatments for sepsis and mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Imanuel Lerman of the VA Center of Excellence for Stress and Mental Health and the Qualcomm Institute, School of Medicine at UC San Diego said, “With this newly developed device we identified cervical electroneurographic evidence of autonomic (fight or flight vs. rest and digest) biotypes that were remarkably consistent across different challenges to the autonomic or involuntary nervous system.”

Researchers can record electrical activity across several nerves using the flexible array of electrodes on the gadget, which extends from the lower front to the upper back of the neck. Other capabilities include a built-in user interface for real-time data visualization and a unique method for classifying individuals based on how their nerve systems react to stress.

In the past, surgically implanted microelectrodes were required for the more accurate methods of determining nerve activity in the neck.

By modifying current technology Coleman had created with co-author Jonas Kurniawan, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, Lerman and Todd Coleman of the Jacobs School at UC San Diego and Stanford University set out to develop a less dangerous and intrusive way to monitor this area of the nervous system. For prolonged, painless monitoring, the new, flexible array can be worn for up to a day and moves effortlessly with the patient’s head and neck motions.

The researchers conducted a series of experiments that required study participants to place and hold their hand in ice water followed by a timed breathing exercise in order to investigate human autonomic biotypes, or groups of individuals whose involuntary nerve systems behaved similarly to stress. The electrode array captured heart rate throughout the breathing exercise as well as cervical nerve signaling (referred to by the team as cervical electroneurography) before and after the ice water challenge.

Participants in the trial were consistently divided into two separate biotype groups, according to the researchers: those whose heart rates and brain activation increased during both tests, and those who showed the opposite pattern. The device’s distinctive algorithm also provides the opportunity to spot variations in how particular nerve clusters react to stressors like the pain brought on by the ice water challenge and the physical symptoms, such as sweating and heart rate increases, connected to the timed breathing challenge.

The researchers said that the outcomes are fascinating. It was discovered that their newly created sensor array could record autonomic nervous system activity.  The autonomic reaction to the cold pressor test and the deep breathing challenge both exhibited a consistent pattern, which surprised us. To demonstrate their sensor capabilities in bigger populations, more work must be done.

Researchers believe that one day, despite the electrode array’s inability to pinpoint the precise nerves that fire in reaction to the stress and discomfort of the cold water challenge, it will help in the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses like PTSD and sepsis. For instance, the vagus nerve, which can be disturbed by PTSD, causes inflammation to be released in the body in reaction to wounds or infections.

By monitoring brain activity in the vagus nerve, Lerman and colleagues believe that their novel device will one day help therapists gauge how well patients are responding to PTSD treatment, such as deep breathing exercises used during mindfulness meditation. Lerman is one of several researchers that are currently testing whether electrical vagus nerve stimulation can reduce inflammation and discomfort in PTSD patients by stimulating these brain regions.

By seeing spikes in nerve activity that cause nausea or dizziness, the array may also be utilized to improve safety in pilots flying military aircraft.

By detecting those who react severely to physical stress, the device may be able to alert patients who are at risk for serious illnesses like sepsis in hospital settings. When the immune system of the body overreacts to an infection, it can cause sepsis and harm to its own tissues. Every hour, there is a 7% rise in the probability of mortality. By giving doctors early notice to provide antibiotics, technology that assists in the detection and flagging of at-risk hospitalized patients would increase a patient’s chances of avoiding or surviving sepsis.

The array will be combined with additional electronics to create a wearable, wireless sensor that may be used outside of the lab as a next step. The clinical trial for in-hospital sepsis detection is currently being conducted by the researchers.

Keywords: researchers develop a unique instrument to assess nerve activity


Yifeng Bu et al. (2022). A flexible adhesive surface electrode array capable of cervical electroneurography during a sequential autonomic stress challenge, Scientific ReportsDOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-21817-w

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