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.
Research on a way to keep people awake and alert with electricity began after scientists affiliated and contracted with the Air Force noted that participants who had electrodes placed onto their scalps to deliver a current were able to lower fatigue and improve their performance on attention tasks. This setup is not easy to re-create outside of a lab, but if it were, it could offer an alternative to caffeine or amphetamine stimulants, also known as “go pills,” which are still prescribed to U.S. Air Force soldiers.
Looking for a more direct and side-effect-free solution led researchers to the vagus nerve. Surgical implants that stimulate the nerve have been used to prevent seizures in people with epilepsy since 1988, and some of these patients have found that the implant helped them manage their headaches and pain. Other studies have found that implanted vagus nerve stimulation improved memory and cognition in both humans and animals.