A new study from the University of Leeds suggests that tickling could be the secret to slowing down aging.
This tickling is not the kind of tickling that results in spastic body movements and laughter. It's a different kind: Ear tickling.
Researchers 'tickled' participants' ears with a tiny electric current to influence the nervous system and slow down some of the effects of aging, the university said in a release published Tuesday.
"This does sound like a strange therapy but it is actually a painless procedure where we place custom-made clip electrodes on a part of your ear called the tragus," Susan Deuchars, author of the study and director of research at the university's School of Biomedical Sciences, told USA TODAY.
The therapy, known as transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation, sends tiny currents of electricity into the ear thattravel down to the body's nervous system.
"This sounds quite ominous, passing electrical current, but we set it at a point where the subject can just feel a slight tingling," said Deuchars.
The tingling feeling is why they referred to it as "tickling." It was well tolerated by all participants in the two-week trial, she said. Twenty-six people over the age of 55 were included in the study.
The ear is a gateway that scientists can use to tinker with the body's metabolic balance, lead study author Beatrice Bretherton said in the release. By using the ear, they don't need to use medication or invasive procedures.
The autonomic nervous system controls bodily functions that don't require thought, such as breathing, digestion, heart rate and blood pressure.
Within the autonomic nervous system, there are two branches: parasympathetic and sympathetic, for resting activity and stress activity, respectively. The two branches work together to allow healthy levels of bodily activity.
The balance changes as people age, and the sympathetic branch can start to dominate. That domination can create an unhealthy imbalance in the automatic nervous system.
As a result, it can leave the body more vulnerable to other diseases and deterioration of bodily functions.
They hoped the therapy would improve the balance of the autonomic nervous system.
After 15 minutes of daily therapy for two weeks, they brought the participants back into the lab andmeasured factors such as heart rate and blood pressure to judge the success rate of their trial.
They found that tickling helped re-balance the body's autonomic nervous system, Deuchars said.
She said they saw improvements in self-reported tension, depression, mood disturbances and sleep.
The team believes that the therapy could be used to reduce the risk of age-related chronic diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure and atrial fibrillation.
The next step, Deuchars said, is to take the study to a larger group to get a more comprehensive look at the benefits of tickle therapy.