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Mapping “The Wandering Nerve”

Submitted for your consideration:

The vagus nerve is the Swiss Army Knife of nerves.


· It’s here to help with inflammation. The vagus nerve’s positioning throughout the body’s major organs tells the brain of any pro-inflammatory cytokines. (Cytokines are small proteins that are crucial in controlling the growth and activity of other immune system cells and blood cells). In response, the vagus nerve produces anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters.

· It’s here for your memories. The vagus nerve carries sensory information to and from the brain. It releases neurotransmitter norepinephrine into the amygdala region of the brain to strengthen both memory formation and storage.

· It helps you breathe. The vagus nerve activates the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is key for survival and for promoting oxygen levels in the blood and organs. If you’re suffering from anxiety or stress, you may have an insufficient release of acetylcholine. (Breathing deeply is the prescription. Yes, deep breathing relaxes the body and helps tell the vagus nerve to turn off the nervous systems’ ‘flight or fight’ response.)

· It controls your heart rate. The vagus nerve is the body’s “natural pacemaker.”

· It’s key to relaxation. This also involves how the vagus nerve is involved in our ‘flight or fight’ response. During ‘flight or fight,’ the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve triggers our freeze response. (Feeling like you ‘freeze up’ in critical situations is a real thing.) Meanwhile, the ventral branch stimulates the ‘rest and digest’ response, nudging the body toward calm. Our past experiences and our perceptions of threat play a role in how these two branches operate relate.

An inside look at one bundle of the human vagus nerve (A), which is computer enhanced (B) and further analyzed at a single fiber level (C). (Credit: Feinstein Institutes)

The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve. It’s the longest in the body. The name comes from Latin—vagus nervus. Literally, “wandering nerve.” It passes through the gut, lungs, diaphragm, throat, inner ear, and facial muscles. The vagus nerve is made up of more than 100,000 sensory and motor fibers, grouped together in several bundles, or fascicles,

Any online search will quickly uncover the fact that there are still debates and discussion about how all of the vagus nerves operates.

Which brings us to this welcome news: scientists at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, supported by an $6.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, are embarking on a three-year project to create a detailed map of the vagus nerve.

The project is called Reconstructing Vagal Anatomy. It’s designed to chart the course of the nerve at a level of detail never before attempted. The scientists will peek at a critical component of human anatomy in a way that nobody has looked before.

“How sensory and motor fibers are arranged inside the vagus nerve and pathways to different organs are essentially unknown,” said Dr. Stavros Zanos, associate professor in the Institute of Bioelectronic Medicine at the Feinstein Institutes as quoted in this article in Business Wire.

Dr. Zanos said the team expects to detail the nerve down to its ‘microscopic structure’ using ‘tomographic imaging’ that will produce high-definition 3D images. The end result will be a ‘micro-anatomy atlas’ of the nerve.

This research could be a game-changer. Abnormal vagus nerve function may lead to inflammation, which is associated with such diseases as Crohn’s, rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic heart disease. Knowledge of the fibers and the nerve’s overall structure will lead to improved treatments. The idea is to “hack” the vagus nerve and cure diseases with bioelectronic devices.

Soon, as with a Swiss Army Knife, we will have discovered all the tools and features of the multipurpose—and mighty important—vagus nerve.







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