Electrical Stimulation Device May Hold Key to Winning Fight Against Fatigue

A handheld device no bigger than most cellphones shows serious promise in keeping even the most sleep-deprived people alert and functional.

An airmen demonstrating the use of the gammaCore ctVNS device. (Photo by Lindsey McIntire)

(CN) — Experts may have found a new handheld device capable of dethroning caffeine as the undisputed king of combating fatigue — and they have the results from four dozen sleep-deprived Air Force personnel to prove it.

Humans, like most living things, are no strangers to fatigue. It’s a scene that plays out every day around the globe: a person, forced to grapple with their regular workload and responsibilities, is brought to a point of exhaustion so deep that it makes even the easiest tasks a trial. Many turn to coffee and other caffeinated options to help keep up with the daily grind.

Scientists have long sought to explore other ways to bring our tired masses a respite. Many experts have determined the most direct way of accomplishing this is to focus on the part of the brain responsible for keeping us alert and attentive throughout the day: the locus coeruleus.

Situated in the brain stem, experts have long believed that if we can stimulate the locus coeruleus with enough electric signals we can boost the brain’s ability to stay functional amid long stretches of exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Experts have even determined the vagus nerve running down the neck serves as the easiest portal to send these electrical signals to the brain, as it’s here where the brain passes along information to other key systems in the body.

Now, experts have tested to see if this theory could hold up to the rigors of everyday life — and their findings may give hope to those looking for relief.

In a study published Thursday in Communications Biology, experts took 40 United States Air Force personnel and asked them to stay awake without caffeine for 34 hours. After the 12-hour mark, researchers provided some of the volunteers with a small, handheld electrical device previously designed to treat migraines capable of sending electrical signals to the vagus nerve while others were given a placebo device.

After being treated with the devices for a few minutes, researchers tested the sleep deprived personnel on their ability focus and multitask. Researchers found that those who received treatment from the electrical device performed much better at their tasks than those who got the dummy device and reported much higher energy and less tiredness as the hours dragged on.

Experts say the positive effects also lasted for quite a while. The alertness boost from the handheld device peaked around 12 hours after it was used and general cognitive improvements lasted for up to 19 hours.

Researchers report the results could be a tremendous breakthrough in ongoing efforts to find new ways to help humans deal with the consequences of exhaustion. The study suggests vagus nerve stimulation by one of these handheld devices could be a much safer way of managing tiredness when compared to the potential pitfalls of caffeine and other stimulants.

The device should also prove user-friendly to most. While previous research efforts have explored similar experiments with other electrical signaling devices, they often took up to 30 minutes to deliver treatment and were difficult to self-administer. The devices used in Thursday’s study, however, are more compact, could provide the treatment in a fraction of the time and can be easily used without any help.  

Researchers say much more testing needs to be done to determine if these kinds of devices could be universally adopted as a new treatment for sleep deprivation. They remain optimistic, however, that Thursday’s findings will only serve to help weary humans around the world in their never-ending fight against fatigue.

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