New device supposedly reduces blood pressure through neural stimulation

23-06-2022 |   |  By Robin Mitchell

Recently, researchers from University College London have developed a device that clips onto the ear and supposedly reduces blood pressure through neural stimulation. What challenge does high blood pressure present, what did the researchers develop, and is the device authentic?


What challenge does high blood pressure present?


High blood pressure is a condition that affects billions around the globe, is one of the leading contributors to early death, and is arguably one of the most well-studied conditions due to its widespread nature. High blood pressure can be caused by many different factors, including diet (salt, fat, cholesterol etc.), hormone issues, diabetes, and even family history. As such, blood pressure is one of the first tests a doctor will do when diagnosing a condition while also asking about family history and diet.

But why exactly is high blood pressure problematic, and how does it cause early death? Simply put, high blood pressure (whereby blood pushes too hard against the walls of arteries) can result in damage to valves in the heart (resulting in heart attacks), increase the chances of brain bleeds (aneurysms), and cause the heart to thicken too much (through increased effort).

Reducing blood pressure can be done with relative ease through controlling one’s diet, losing weight, and exercising. Those who still suffer from hypertension even after this can also be prescribed medications such as beta-blockers and blood thinners. However, using medicines to treat a condition is not often the most ideal way, especially if the body builds up a tolerance to the medication.


Researchers develop supposed blood-pressure reducing device


Recently, researchers from University College London published details of a wearable electronic device that can supposedly reduce blood pressure without using any medication. The device is clipped to the ear, where electrical pulses are sent into the body that travels down the vagus nerve. It is believed that sending such pulses can encourage the body to reduce blood pressure and may only need to be worn for an hour a day to be effective.

According to the lead researcher Professor Gourine, the device has been shown to reduce her systolic pressure by 10 to 15 units, while traditional medicines have demonstrated a reduction of no more than 8. Additionally, the device is currently manufacturable for £20, which would make it a cheap and effective tool for reducing blood pressure for millions under NHS care.

The device in question is now being tested by the National Institute for Health and Care Research with 100 participants that suffer from high blood pressure. If proven to work, it could see NHS use in the next few years as an alternative treatment method that bypasses many side effects felt with the use of medication (lightheadedness, IBS etc.).


Could such a device be authentic or just snake oil?


It is amazing to see how many wearable devices are sold that supposedly fix all kinds of medical conditions. Magnetic wrist bands are said to increase blood flow and reduce pain, and rings made from radioactive thorium are advertised as being good for energy flow, but the truth is that these devices have absolutely no scientific foundation to prove their abilities.

It is also shocking to see just how many research papers published by respectable institutions gain media attention for their invention of “revolutionary technological advances” when the slightest bit of scientific inquiry would show the research to either be flawed or pointless. One good example was when researchers developed solar panels that generate energy at night from heat differences in the environment, but some napkin calculations showed that an area the size of a football pitch would be able to charge a single smartphone.

However, the device being developed at University College London may be truly authentic for three reasons. Firstly, it has been made clear that the device has not published any data on its operation, which shows that even the developers are partly sceptical of its capabilities.

Secondly, the current ongoing trial of the device will decide if it does indeed work or if it is more fiction than fact (self-belief in the device could have a calming effect which sees a reduction in blood pressure). Thirdly, stimulation of the vagus nerve is already known to affect the body, and implants already exist that help mitigates seizures.

The amount of energy that would be released by an ear-attached device would be small, and as such, it is likely that the device may not perform as well as intended. At this point, all that can be done is wait for the medical trial to complete to see if a difference is indeed detected.


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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.

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