Veterans Affairs

Vagus nerve stimulation obesity treatment

Minimally invasive approach for weight loss in individuals with BMI greater than 30

Medical & Biotechnology

The relationship between BMI (or weight) loss after 1 year of VNS and BMI (or weight) at study entry. Normal weight, 19-24 kg (●); overweight, 25-29 (○); obese, 30-38 (▲); severely obese, 40(△). 

The Department of Veterans Affairs has invented a novel treatment for obesity. Businesses can license the patented technology for development into a widely available treatment.

Obesity is a major public health concern that afflicts an estimated 650 million people worldwide. Serious and common complications from obesity include hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dyslipidemia, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea among others. Standard treatments include diet, exercise, behavioral therapy, and medications. Regardless of the therapy, most patients do not succeed in maintaining a normal weight.

Selective nerve stimulation has been tried as an obesity therapy with mixed results. Devices used to provide the electrical pulses to the vagus nerve in the abdomen, or just above or below the diaphragm, typically require a significant invasive implantation procedure exposing the patient to surgical risk.

VA researchers observed that chronic cervical vagus nerve stimulation (cVNS) of the left vagal trunk in the neck for extended periods of time, cause a consistent and reliable reduction of weight.

An illustration of an electronic device stimulating the vagus nerve (yellow) in the neck. (Wikimedia)

In their work with cVNS therapy for epilepsy, weight loss occurred gradually over one year and some of the most obese patients continued to lose weight thereafter. The amount of weight loss was proportional to the initial severity of obesity.

Based on this, the research team developed a method of inducing weight loss through stimulation of the vagus nerve in a patient’s neck. In this approach, a neurostimulator is implanted under the skin, in the chest (alternatively in the neck or upper arm) in a minimally invasive procedure. The device delivers electrical impulses via leads to one or both branches of the vagus nerve. Variables consisting of current amplitude, pulse width, pulse frequency, and a duty cycle of alternating intervals can all be controlled.

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