With the rise in the industrialization of parts of the food industry and leaps in urbanization, global obesity rates have reached record numbers.
Also part of the conversation is the growing body of studies looking at previously unexamined methods for promoting weight loss that relies on making modifications on the cellular or molecular level.
Now, a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has developed an implant which they believe will reprogram some of the fundamental sensations connected to controlling our appetite. Specifically, their research is centered around the vagus nerve.
An Implant Holds the Key
The nerve, which is the longest in the group of 12 which make up the group known as the cranial nerves, plays a role in a host of health-regulating functions, CN X.
CN X is the name it's given because of its tenth place among the dozen of nerves, encourages two types of stimulation: (1) visceral (affecting the organs) and (2) somatic (skin or muscles).
The nerve becomes important for weight loss because it supports sensory information affecting the esophagus and the majority of the digestive tract, even exhibiting a small role in terms of taste sensations in one region of the tongue.
As the researchers write: "The vagus nerve stimulation system comprises a flexible and biocompatible nanogenerator that is attached on the surface of stomach[, generating] biphasic electric pulses in responsive to the peristalsis of stomach."
To produce the >1 cm implant which was used for the lab mice, the team relied on 3D printing. The results: within 100 days, they achieved a consistent average body weight of 350 g, and what's more this was 38% less than what was observed in the control groups.
“The pulses correlate with the stomach’s motions, enhancing a natural response to help control food intake,” says Xudong Wang, a UW–Madison professor of materials science and engineering and principal investigator in the study.
A Straightforward Design
With the aim of creating a device with a simplified design, Wang and his team developed an implant that contains no sophisticated wiring, no batteries, and no electronics of any kind. The stomach's movement, therefore, becomes the catalyst for action.
“It’s automatically responsive to our body function, producing stimulation when needed,” Wang explains. “Our body knows best.”
The team would like to enlarge the scope of the study in the future to incorporate larger animal subjects, and if they achieve the same results, hopefully, design a study which involves human trials.
“Our expectation is that the device will be more effective and convenient to use than other technologies,” Wang shared optimistically. By all indications, given the time and resources, the team will produce a non-invasive and full-proof device for promoting weight loss.
Details about the study appear in an article, titled "Effective weight control via an implanted self-powered vagus nerve stimulation device", which was published on December 17th in the Nature Communications journal.