Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) Treatment

Latest medical research suggests that a treatment that is proving useful for epilepsy and depression may also help people with eating disorders.

What Is It?

The Vagus Nerve Stimulator is a device that produces intermittent electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve. For people with eating disorders it is used to interrupt the normal communication between the brain and the digestive system. This stimulation seems to either fool the stomach into thinking it is full, and therefore people naturally eat less, or enables people who have a medical condition that prevents them recognizing when they are they are full to do so.

How Does It Work?

Electrodes are implanted on the nerves around the esophagus and then a small generator device, similar to a pacemaker, is placed just under the skin in the chest or trunk area.

This stimulator then sends small bursts of low-level electric impulses to the nerves and this interferes with the brain’s ability to communicate with the stomach and stop it expanding. It may also affect the hormones involved with appetite.

Weight Loss

Patients participating in trials have naturally reduced their calorie intake by more than 30% in a month, and therefore lost weight, without any special diets or exercise programs.

Doctors are able to adjust and individualize the frequency of the VNS treatment for each patient and can switch it on and off as required. In some versions of the device, the VNS is automatic and in others, the patient can be given the control, by use of a magnet, to increase or decrease the intensity of the stimulation.

The operation is much less invasive than gastric by-pass surgery and may even be possible to do as a day patient procedure. When the patient has lost the necessary weight, the device can be removed or it can be turned off, left in the body, and turned on again later if necessary.

It appears that it is important that the nerve stimulation is intermittent, as otherwise, the brain is able to learn a different way of communicating with the digestive system, and therefore override the VNS device.

Helping Bulimics

This VNS treatment seems to be particularly effective for people suffering from bulimia as it can help reduce the symptoms of binge eating and purging.

It seems that long-term bulimics have damaged their vagus nerve, and the nerve ends up operating in overdrive. This nerve then seems to create the compulsion to binge and vomit, making the disorder physiological rather than purely physiological. The VNS enables the nerve surges to be controlled, in the same sort of way a heart pace-maker controls erratic heart beats.


Although VNS is a promising new therapy for people with obesity and eating disorders, it is not yet widely available. You should consult with your health practitioner to see if it is a suitable treatment for you, if it is available in your area, and covered under your HMO health plan.

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