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The tickle response just might be one of the most perplexing physiological reactions we humans are capable of. Think about it: an uncomfortable sensation in one of several areas (feet, armpits, etc) results in uncontrolled laughter. How does that make sense, exactly? Even more bizarre there’s some new research that suggests tickling may actually slow the aging process.

Well, sort of. It’s not tickling associated with giggling children and tickling feet–it’s “tickling” of a particular nerve in your ear. And the tickling is accomplished with an electrical current (not a feather duster).

How Does This Electrical Tickling Thing Work?

Your nervous system–at its core–works on electrical impulses. That’s how one part of your body communicates with another or how messages are sent to and from your brain. (Okay, it’s way more complicated than that, but you get the idea.) So researchers started to use finely tuned electrical currents to help treat nerve disorders. One particular treatment, called transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation (or tVNS), is commonly used to treat epilepsy and might even be able to help with tinnitus.

During a tVNS session, a tiny device will be attached to your ear. This device will direct gentle electrical currents towards the vagus nerve (which is connected to a wide variety of nervous system functions).

The vagus nerve is so well connected that researchers began to wonder whether this nerve tickling therapy might have other benefits. So a team led by Beatrice Bretherton began studying the impacts of tVNS on overall mental health and cognition. The researchers found significant improvements in subjects who had undergone tVNS. Many of the most “unbalanced” nervous systems made the largest corrections. In other words, with this therapy, your nervous system could be slower to show signs of aging and might remain vital and healthy longer.

Hearing Aids and Cognitive Health

And that’s exciting news! Still, there’s a long journey between research and treatment, so it may yet be some time before this electrical tickle of the ear is widely used for cognitive improvements. Thankfully, tVNS therapy isn’t the only way to keep dementia and cognitive decline in check.

One of the most common ways to help keep your mental faculties about you is to wear hearing aids. It’s true! But let’s back up and explain that a bit, shall we? Let’s start with hearing loss itself, which can affect the brain in the following ways:

  • Strain: When you stop hearing sounds, your brain and your ears still want to hear. So they strain. It’s what they’re supposed to do, after all. Over time, the extra effort your brain and ears are putting in can create its own kind of strain. And your mental faculties can suffer accordingly.
  • Isolation: When communicating with others becomes more challenging, it’s not uncommon to isolate yourself. Maybe you get your groceries delivered rather than going to the grocery store. You interact with people less and less. And those communication centers in your brain begin to atrophy–which can cascade into other issues down the road.

Hearing Aids Can Keep Your Brain Healthier

Hearing loss can often create a circumstance in which you notice a rapid cognitive decline, especially if that hearing loss isn’t treated. In some cases, tVNS therapy might be a possible solution to that kind of cognitive decline.

But for the vast majority of people, treating any hearing loss is going to be the most common course of action–and the best treatment for permanent hearing loss is usually a hearing aid. A hearing aid (when properly calibrated) will reduce the strain on your brain and make it easier to interact with other people on a daily basis. You’ll strain less to hear your TV and enjoy your conversations with the teller at the bank–all of which is good for your brain.

A Holistic Approach

You can take steps to prevent deterioration of your hearing (wearing ear protection, for example) and you can also take steps to treat any hearing loss that comes up.

If tVNS therapies show promise, they could become more commonly available–and nerve “tickling” could keep you feeling more energetic and vital, to say nothing of slowing the aging process.

Until that future gets here, you’ll just have to make do with keeping on track with your diet, exercise, lifestyle–and hearing health.

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