03 July 2021

Scientific American: “Neck-Zapping Gadget reduced All-Nighter Fatigue in New Study”

Instead of reaching for a cup of coffee during a graveyard shift, workers might one day hold an electric-razor-sized device to their necks. After a couple of minutes they would emerge refreshed and awake from this experience, which could come to be known as a “vagus nerve break”.

The device, called gammaCore, sends a series of vibrating bursts of low-voltage electricity, each lasting a millisecond, to the side of the neck. It is meant to stimulate part of the vagus nerve, a connector between brain and body, and cause the release of wakefulness chemicals.

In the study, researchers observed 40 active-duty soldiers from an Air Force base as they stayed awake for 34 hours, during which time they completed cognitive tests and reported their mood and level of fatigue. Half of the participants used gammaCore for eight minutes near the beginning of testing, while the other half were given a sham device that looked and felt like the real deal but did not provide an electrical current. Those in the group that received the real vagus nerve stimulation stuck more closely to their baseline performance as the night wore on and reported less fatigue over time than the other group.

Maddie Bender

I see that research into human sleep processes and mitigating the negative effects of sleep deprivation is progressing. Reading the headline however, I had an instant dystopian vision of a near-future where corporations mandate similar devices for their employees to ensure their continued attention during working hours – and maybe extend them beyond the regular schedule. The flip side may also come true, with students and workers relying on electrical stimulation to keep themselves awake because of pressures to perform.

Air Force soldier demonstrates the use of gammaCore
Air Force soldier demonstrates the use of gammaCore. Credit: Lindsey McIntire

While this technique has less side-effects than chemical stimulants, its long-term effects should be rigorously evaluated before allowing devices on the market. Repeated nerve stimulation coupled with lack of sleep could cause permanent damage, or decrease the sensitivity to norepinephrine, which would reduce the effectiveness of the electric stimulation.

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