Stress is a word that we hear all the time but many people don’t recognise the full extent of the impact that it has on us. Our bodies react to it through a series of physiological changes caused by the release of stress hormones, in particular, cortisol. These are commonly used as biological markers to assess our response and recovery but are not easy to obtain.
Chronic stress can result in imbalances in our autonomic nervous system (ANS), where the sympathetic “flight or fright” response is over activated through continued exposure to stressors, resulting in health problems ranging from heart failure, inflammatory bowel disease and chronic pain syndrome. It can also lead to a clinical diagnosis of anxiety and depression.
So how do we find a simpler way to de-code and measure stress so we can intervene earlier and personalise treatment? MindSpire’s expertise lies in unravelling stress, using non-invasive biomarkers from heart rate, in particular Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and brain wave patterns collected from an ear piece in non-clinical settings. These are used to personalise treatments and monitor their effectiveness.
The ANS influences the function of organs through the activity of the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). A major component of the PNS is the vagus nerve, the 10th cranial nerve, which acts as an "information superhighway" between our brain, thorax, lungs, heart and abdomen, heart and gut to help maintain homeostasis through the “rest and relax” or “tend-and-befriend” responses.
In its role as the “great wandering protector” of the body, it relays information back to the brain via afferent fibres, which make up 80% of the nerve. It also plays a key role in the gut-brain axis, responsible for 2-way information and allowing a route for neurotransmitters produced by gut based microflora to communicate directly with the brain. On the flip side, to maintain homeostasis, the sympathetic nervous system drives the “fight-or-flight” response. Ideally, within the autonomic nervous system, the tug of war between these two polar opposite mechanisms creates a "yin-yang" type of harmony marked by homeostatic balance.
In 1921, Nobel Prize-winning physiologist, Otto Loewi discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve caused a reduction in heart rate by triggering the release of a substance he coined Vagusstoff (German for “vagus substance”). This substance was later identified as acetylcholine and became the first neurotransmitter ever identified by scientists.
Today non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation with small electrical pulses is already approved for treatment in patients with epilepsy, depression, chronic pain and cluster migraines. fMRI studies have revealed that stimulation sends electrical signals through to the brainstem, ending in the nucleus of the solitary tract, which in turn signals several other forebrain, limbic and brainstem sites, including the amygdala and nucleus accumbens, (thought to influence the pathogenesis of depression) and the locus coereleus.
Our published research will be available shortly showing positive effects of stimulation from the ear in our proof of concept study.
To date there has been no real data-driven insight into how stress affects an individual’s health. It is however possible to predict levels of stress with over 80% accuracy using a combination of data derived from electrocardiogram (ECG) and brain wave electroencephalograms (EEG) patterns data using neural network models.
Building an personalised model is key and can be supplemented with qualitative and behavioural data to establish a baseline and clear patterns between stress with the environment and activity.
With an established baseline we will then be able to personalise vagus nerve stimulation, either on its own or possibly overlaid with other treatments. This will start with a straightforward open loop stimulation without any adjustment of the parameters until we have built and tested our algorithms to drive a closed loop stimulation with instantaneous biofeedback. This is our goal; to respond to the therapeutic needs and actual physiological state of the body.
Also we hope to learn and share more about the insights into the effectiveness of interventions in the treatment of chronic stress, the levels of stress in specific populations and the opportunity for increasing human flourishing
The ear has been a site of therapeutic interest for millennia, with Chinese traditional medicine establishing auricular acupuncture. In today's modern world, it's rapidly turning into a biological equivalent of a USB port. From it you can "read" a range of physiological and brain wave data to measure when you are stressed and then "write" to the brain either through the sounds of your favourite music or with the help of MindSpire, to stimulate your vagus nerve to help fast track your rest and relax response and stay physically and mentally healthy.
Our ear based device sits comfortably in the outer ear canal, can be worn unobtrusively for an extended duration. Signals extracted from the ear are processed and interpreted in the wearer’s app using our bespoke stress assessment methodology and used to design and deliver a personalised treatment plan using our proprietary algorithms.