By Xochitl Rojas-Rocha
Seconds after the body detects a pathogen, a part of the nervous system called the vagus nerve alerts the brain to a threat. Its remarkable speed and efficiency has promise for developing a non-invasive means to catch infections well before symptoms set in. Now, with the support of federal funding, QI-affiliate and associate professor of UC San Diego’s Department of Anesthesiology Imanuel Lerman has launched an exploratory study to translate that promise into action.
Currently, timing is a significant obstacle to identifying and treating a disease. To provide a patient with a diagnosis of pneumonia, for example, a medical professional must collect samples and culture the bacteria or virus in a process that can take days. Monitoring the vagus nerve, on the other hand, could drastically reduce the time it takes to diagnose the patient and proceed to treatment.
“In the past, I’ve taken care of patients with severe infections and sepsis, and some don’t survive,” said Lerman. “That can be heartbreaking. From my standpoint, it’s the understanding that neuromodulation and our capability to use the nervous system to our advantage and change these outcomes would be something huge. The problem right now is we don’t have the tools to listen.”
Lerman suspects that a wearable magnetometer may be the key. Unlike current means of monitoring the vagus nerve, which require surgically implanting a foreign object in the body, a magnetometer could be worn around the neck, where the vagus nerve nestles against the carotid artery. The vagus nerve is a superhighway of nerve fibers responsible for, among other things, releasing proteins called anti-inflammatory cytokines to keep the body’s immune response in check. Without it, inflammation could run rampant in the body’s attempt to defend itself from viruses or bacteria. A healthy vagus nerve takes only moments to sense pro-inflammatory cytokines released by cells under siege by a pathogen, secrete anti-inflammatory cytokines and warn the brain in a flurry of electrical activity.
It’s this change in signal frequency between the vagus nerve and the brain that Lerman hopes to use as an early-warning system for infection. To test whether a magnetometer is sensitive enough to detect such a change, Lerman and his collaborators will stimulate nerves in the hand and try to track the shift in electrical activity.
If their technique is successful, the project could have wider-reaching implications for fighting epidemics and biological warfare, as well. Worn as a discreet necklace or scarf, the finalized magnetometer could alert military officials to biological and nuclear attacks and disease outbreaks in disaster areas.
The project is funded in part by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) Division of Research, Innovation, and Ventures (DRIVe), part of the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, through contract 75A50119C00038, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA. Other key partners include Sandia National Laboratories, Quspin, Farus LLC and the UC San Diego Radiology Imaging Laboratory.
The study is also housed and supported by the Qualcomm Institute, a UC San Diego research center that fosters innovative solutions to problems in society, medicine, technology and the environment. In blending the fields of medicine and engineering, Lerman’s research fits right in with other multidisciplinary projects at QI. To learn more about QI’s research and public events, visit the website.
Lerman and his group are currently carrying out a study based on the technology highlighted in this story, and are actively seeking out healthy volunteers over the age of 18. If you are interested in participating, please call 858-822-0787.