OU researchers evaluate nerve stimulation in atrial fibrillation treatment
Researchers at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center are exploring the effectiveness of a new high-tech treatment for atrial fibrillation, a common heart rhythm disorder.
Atrial fibrillation affects more than 2.5 million Americans. With atrial fibrillation, rapid, disorganized electrical signals cause the heart’s two upper chambers to beat very fast and irregularly. Atrial fibrillation can cause strokes and death.
Current treatments involve drugs or surgery, but a new approach is being investigated that focuses on stimulating the vagus nerve, a nerve that exists on both sides of the body and plays an important role in helping the heart beat within a safe range.
"It's been shown that people who have a greater vagal tone are less likely to suffer a heart attack, are less likely to have sudden cardiac death or an adverse outcome following a heart attack,” said Stavros Stavrakis, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of Cardiology at the OU College of Medicine and member of the OU Heart Rhythm Institute.
Stavrakis and his team are evaluating the therapeutic potential of low-level vagus nerve stimulation in the treatment of atrial fibrillation.
The approach utilizes a stimulator surgically implanted around the vagus nerve.
"So you just do a small incision in the neck; put that in; and then the stimulator communicates wirelessly with an external generator,” Stavrakis said.
The hope is that by stimulating the vagus nerve at a level that is not slowing the heart rate and is not noticeable by the patient, the device will be able to prevent episodes of atrial fibrillation, thereby regulating and restoring a more normal heart rhythm.
If successful in the laboratory, the developers of the device believe clinical trials could begin in the United States as early as next year. The company already is in the process of testing a prototype in patients in Europe.
While commercial availability of the device in this country is still probably five to ten years away, Stavrakis said it is promising technology and may provide a way to offer a minimally invasive treatment for atrial fibrillation. However, he emphasizedthe technology would likely be used to complement, rather than replace, current atrial fibrillation treatments.
The research is being conducted in conjunction with Rosellini Scientific with funding from a $75,000 NIH Small Business Innovation Research grant.
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