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Vagus Nerve Signals May Act as an Early Warning System for Inflammation in MS

June 11, 2018

A new way of interpreting inflammatory signals using the vagus nerve — which carries such signals from throughout the body to the brain — has been found, a study reports.

This finding raises the possibility of having a kind of “early warning system” for inflammation, a damaging process in such chronic illnesses as multiple sclerosis (MS), lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome, and celiac disease.

The research, “Identification of cytokine-specific sensory neural signals by decoding murine vagus nerve activity,” was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The vagus nerve, the longest of the autonomic nervous system — which controls internal organs and glands — extends from the head to the abdomen, and has both sensory and motor functions. It nerve fibers carry information on the workings and health of such organs such as the heart, esophagus, stomach, pharynx, larynx, and the bowels.

Researchers, with specialties in signal processing and machine learning, used the method to better understand the specific inflammatory responses associated with different diseases.

Working with mice, they found that exposure to TNF and IL-1 beta, two inflammatory molecules, led to different nerve impulses being recorded from the vagus nerve.

“Here we develop methods to isolate and decode specific neural signals to discriminate between two different cytokines,” the study reports. “Nerve impulses recorded from the vagus nerve of mice exposed to IL-1β and TNF were sorted into groups based on their shape and amplitude, and their respective firing rates were computed.”