Skip to content

    Health & Balance

    Font Size

    Pacemakers -- for Anxiety

    Anxiety -- the Nerve

    WebMD Feature

    Sept. 24, 2001 -- Gray Scott, of Florence, S.C., has been treated for anxiety for nine years, from the time she was diagnosed with an eating disorder at age 15. Since then, she has tried a variety of medications and psychotherapy, with variable results.

    Recommended Related to Mind, Body, Spirit

    Become An 'I' Specialist, Improve Yourself

    By Hayley Krischer Everyone has that New Age-y person in their life who makes existential statements like, “If you don' t know yourself, you're not living." Or, "If you don't know yourself, you can't live your truth." And you’re always like, "I do know myself. I know I want a dirty martini extra olives, and I want one now." Then you get home and you ask yourself, "Why have I had three bad breakups in a year?" Or, "Why have I been so unhappy lately?" Or, "Why do I keep spending endless amounts of...

    Read the Become An 'I' Specialist, Improve Yourself article > >

    "When the symptoms are alleviated, it becomes tolerable," she tells WebMD. "At their worst, I have felt very desperate."

    Scott is not alone. Anxiety disorders -- including phobias, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder -- affect more than 23 million Americans. Although treatment with a combination of drugs and therapy is very often successful, some patients go from drug to drug, and therapy to therapy, with no relief.

    "Most people think of anxiety disorders as not terribly devastating, and easily treatable with drugs," says psychiatrist Mark George, MD, director of the brain stimulation laboratory at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. "But there is a substantial core of people for whom drugs don't work and for whom there are no good alternatives."

    That may change, however, if a new surgical treatment called vagus nerve stimulation, or VNS, proves successful.

    On May 18, Scott became one of the first anxiety patients to receive the experimental treatment. On that day, surgeons at the Medical College of South Carolina implanted a device in her chest, similar to a heart pacemaker, and wired it to electrically stimulate the vagus nerve in her neck.

    Named for the Latin word meaning "wandering," the vagus nerve meanders from the colon, past the intestines, heart, and lungs, and comes together at the diaphragm, where it runs as a thick cable past the esophagus and into the brain.

    George calls the nerve "an information superhighway to the brain." Contrary to long-held wisdom, the traffic on that highway is mostly going north -- from the body to the brain, not vice versa, he says.

    "Most people have thought of it as the way the brain controls the heart and the guts," George explains. "In fact, most of the information is actually going in the other direction. The vagus nerve is really the brain's way of interpreting what is happening in the heart and the guts."

    1 | 2 | 3

    Today on WebMD

    woman in yoga class
    6 health benefits of yoga.
    beautiful girl lying down of grass
    10 relaxation techniques to try.
    mature woman with glass of water
    Do you really need to drink 8 glasses of water a day?
    coffee beans in shape of mug
    Get the facts.
    Take your medication
    Hand appearing to hold the sun
    Hungover man
    Welcome mat and wellington boots
    Woman worn out on couch
    Happy and sad faces
    Fingertip with string tied in a bow
    laughing family