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9 Nervy Facts About the Vagus Nerve

What happens in the vagus nerve, it turns out, doesn’t stay in the vagus nerve. The longest of the cranial nerves, the vagus nerve is so named because it “wanders” like a vagabond, sending out fibers from your brainstem to your visceral organs. The vagus nerve is literally the captain of your inner nerve center—the parasympathetic nervous system, to be specific. And like a good captain, it does a great job of overseeing a vast range of crucial functions, communicating nerve impulses to every organ in your body. New research has revealed that it may also be the missing link to treating chronic inflammation, and the beginning of an exciting new field of treatment that leaves medications behind. Here are nine facts about this powerful nerve bundle. 

1. The vagus nerve prevents inflammation.

With a vast network of fibers stationed like spies around all your organs, when the vagus nerve gets wind of the hallmarks of inflammation—cytokines or the inflammatory substance tumor necrosis factor (TNF)—it alerts the brain and elicits anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters via the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway. A certain amount of inflammation after injury or illness is normal. But an overabundance is linked to many diseases and conditions, from sepsis to the autoimmune condition rheumatoid arthritis.

2. It helps you make memories.

A University of Virginia study showed success in strengthening memory in rats by stimulating the vagus nerve, which releases the neurotransmitter norepinephrine into the amygdala, consolidating memories. Related studies were done on humans, opening promising treatments for conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

3. It helps you breathe.

The neurotransmitter acetylcholine, elicited by the vagus nerve, literally gives you the breath of life by telling your lungs to breathe. It’s one of the reasons that botox—often used cosmetically—can be potentially dangerous, because it interrupts your acetylcholine production. You can, however, also manually stimulate your vagus nerve by doing abdominal breathing or holding your breath for four to eight counts.

4. It’s intimately involved with your heart.

The vagus nerve is responsible for controlling the heart rate via electrical impulses to the sinoatrial node of the heart, where acetylcholine release slows the pulse. The way doctors determine the “tone” or “strength” of your vagus nerve (and your cardiac health) is by measuring the time between your individual heart beats, and then plotting this on a chart over time. This is your “heart rate variability.”

5. It initiates your body’s relaxation response.

When your ever-vigilant sympathetic nervous system revs up the fight or flight responses—pouring the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline into your body—the vagus nerve tells your body to chill out by releasing acetylcholine. Its tendrils extend to many organs, acting like fiberoptic cables that send instructions to release enzymes and proteins like prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin, which calm you down. People with a stronger vagus response may be more likely to recover more quickly after stress, injury, or illness.

6. It translates between your gut and your brain.

Your gut uses the vagus nerve like a walkie-talkie to tell your brain how you’re feeling via electric impulses called “action potentials". Your gut feelings are very real.

7. Overstimulation of the vagus nerve is the most common cause of fainting.

If you tremble or get queasy at the sight of blood or while getting a flu shot, you’re not weak; you’re experiencing “vagal syncope.” Your body, responding to stress, overstimulates the vagus nerve, causing your blood pressure and heart rate to drop. During extreme syncope, blood flow is restricted to your brain, and you lose consciousness. But most of the time you just have to sit or lie down for the symptoms to subside.

8. Electric stimulation of the vagus nerve reduces inflammation and may inhibit it altogether.

Truly breaking new medical ground, neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey was the first to prove that stimulating the vagus nerve can significantly reduce inflammation. Results on rats were so successful, he reproduced the experiment in humans with stunning results. The creation of implants to stimulate the vagus nerve via electronic implants showed a drastic reduction, and even remission, in rheumatoid arthritis—which has no known cure and is often treated with the toxic cancer drug methotraxate—hemorrhagic shock, and other equally serious inflammatory syndromes.

9. Vagus nerve stimulation has created a new field of medicine.  

Spurred on by the success of vagal nerve stimulation to treat inflammation and epilepsy, a burgeoning field of medical study, known as “bioelectronics,” may be the future of medicine. Using implants that deliver electric impulses to various body parts, scientists and doctors hope to treat illness with fewer medications and fewer side effects.

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Why Is Your First Instinct After Hurting Your Finger to Put It in Your Mouth?
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If you close your fingers in a car door or slam your funny bone into a wall, you might find your first reaction is to suck on your fingers or rub your elbow. Not only is this an instinctive self-soothing behavior, it's a pretty effective technique for temporarily calming pain signals to the brain.

But how and why does it work? To understand, you need to know about the dominant theory of how pain is communicated in the body.

In the 17th century, French scientist and philosopher René Descartes proposed that there were specific pain receptors in the body that "rang a bell in the brain" when a stimulus interacted with the body, Lorne Mendell, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Stony Brook University in New York, tells Mental Floss. However, no study has effectively been able to identify receptors anywhere in the body that only respond to painful stimuli.

"You can activate certain nerve fibers that can lead to pain, but under other circumstances, they don't," Mendell says. In other words, the same nerve fibers that carry pain signals also carry other sensations.

In 1965, two researchers at MIT, Patrick Wall and Ronald Melzack, proposed what they called the gate control theory of pain, which, for the most part, holds up to this day. Mendell, whose research focuses on the neurobiology of pain and who worked with both men on their pain studies, explains that their research showed that feeling pain is more about a balance of stimuli on the different types of nerve fibers.

"The idea was that certain fibers that increased the input were ones that opened the gate, and the ones that reduced the input closed the gate," Mendell says. "So you have this idea of a gate control sitting across the entrance of the spinal cord, and that could either be open and produce pain, or the gate could be shut and reduce pain."

The gate control theory was fleshed out in 1996 when neurophysiologist Edward Perl discovered that cells contain nociceptors, which are neurons that signal the presence of tissue-damaging stimuli or the existence of tissue damage.

Of the two main types of nerve fibers—large and small—the large fibers carry non-nociceptive information (no pain), while small fibers transmit nociceptive information (pain).

Mendell explains that in studies where electric stimulation is applied to nerves, as the current is raised, the first fibers to be stimulated are the largest ones. As the intensity of the stimulus increases, smaller and smaller fibers get recruited in. "When you do this in a patient at low intensity, the patient will recognize the stimulus, but it will not be painful," he says. "But when you increase the intensity of the stimulus, eventually you reach threshold where suddenly the patient will say, 'This is painful.'"

Thus, "the idea was that shutting the gate was something that the large fibers produced, and opening the gate was something that the small fibers produced."

Now back to your pain. When you suck on a jammed finger or rub a banged shin, you're stimulating the large fibers with "counter irritation," Mendell says. The effect is "a decrease in the message, or the magnitude of the barrage of signals being driven across the incoming fiber activation. You basically shut the gate. That is what reduces pain."

This concept has created "a big industry" around treating pain with mild electrical stimulation, Mendell says, with the goal of stimulating those large fibers in the hopes they will shut the gate on the pain signals from the small fibers.

While counter irritation may not help dull the pain of serious injury, it may come in handy the next time you experience a bad bruise or a stubbed toe.

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The American Museum of Natural History
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10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.

1. LIGHTING REVEALS HIDDEN IMAGES.

Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.

2. CERTAIN SOUNDS TAKE PRIORITY ...

We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.

3. ... AS DO CERTAIN IMAGES.

When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.

4. PAST IMAGES AFFECT PRESENT PERCEPTION.

Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.

5. COLOR INFLUENCES TASTE ...

Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.

6. ... AND SO DOES SOUND

Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.

7. BEING HYPER-FOCUSED HAS DRAWBACKS.

Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.

8. THINGS GET WEIRD WHEN SENSES CONTRADICT EACH OTHER.

Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.

9. WE SEE SHADOWS THAT AREN’T THERE.

If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.

10. WE SEE FACES EVERYWHERE.

The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.

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