Tickle Therapy: This New Approach Promises To Slow Effects Of Aging

Some people hate being tickled, while others find it fun and relaxing. But annoying or making your friends laugh are not the only reasons to enjoy tickling since it may have health benefits too.

Researchers from the University of Leeds in England found that a “tickle therapy” could help slow down the effects of aging. The process, called transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation, involves tickling the ear with a small electrical current.

The team said the tickle therapy was effective during tests to improve the wellbeing of people aged 55 and older. It helped balance their autonomic nervous system and recalibrate the body's internal control system.

The autonomic nervous system plays an important role in the body. It mainly supports functions that do not rely on conscious thought, such as breathing, blood pressure, heart rate and digestion.  

The tickle therapy’s effects to restore balance in the system could reduce the risks of having chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and atrial fibrillation, researchers said in their study, published in the journal Aging

"The ear is like a gateway through which we can tinker with the body's metabolic balance, without the need for medication or invasive procedures,” Beatrice Bretherton, lead study author from the University of Leeds, said in a statement

For the study, researchers gathered 29 healthy volunteers, aged 55 and older, to try the tickle therapy. Each participant received 15-minute session per day for more than two weeks and were also taught to self-administer the therapy at home.

Researchers said the short daily sessions led to physiological and wellbeing improvements, like better mood and sleep. The therapy works by restoring balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system. 

Older people commonly lose the balance between the two that increases their risk for diseases. The tickle therapy targets the vagus nerve in the parasympathetic system. 

Applying small electrical current to the nerve in the ear taps the out-of-balance autonomic systems. 

"We believe this stimulation can make a big difference to people's lives, and we're now hoping to conduct further studies to see if tVNS can benefit multiple disorders," Susan Deuchars, one of the senior authors of the study, said. 

The research team plans to continue the study to understand if tickle therapy could provide long-term health effects.

Tickle Therapy A tVNS device attaches to the ear and gently provides electrical stimulation, which rebalances the autonomic nervous system. University of Leeds