A pain-free electrical current sent to the ear appears capable of re-balancing the autonomic nervous system.
Getting a tickle behind the ear is not just good for a giggle, it could slow down one of the effects of ageing.
Scientists have developed a short daily therapy that recreates the sensation via a small and pain-free electrical current, which appears to re-balance the autonomic nervous system for people aged 55 and over.
The autonomic nervous system controls many key bodily functions that do not require conscious thought, including heart rate, digestion and breathing, and the therapy could help protect older people from chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
It works by delivering signals to the nervous system through the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to part of the colon, providing crucial fibres to every organ in the body.
The branch of the vagus nerve stimulated by the therapy is located in the skin of specific parts of the outer ear.
People who tried the therapy – named transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (TVNS) – also reported improvements to their mood and sleep.
Diane Crossley, 70, from Leeds, said it “helped me with my awareness of my own health”.
She was one of 29 healthy volunteers recruited by researchers at the University of Leeds to try the therapy, receiving it for 15 minutes per day over a two-week period.
Those who benefited most had the greatest imbalance in their autonomic nervous system at the outset.
The system is made up of two branches – the sympathetic, which helps the body prepare for high intensity activity, and parasympathetic, which is important for more calm and restful moments.
Researchers believe being able to correct this balance could help us age more healthily, as well as help with chronic diseases and some mental health issues.
It may also lower risk of death and the need for medication or hospital visits.
The study was led by Dr Beatrice Bretherton, from the school of biomedical sciences at the University of Leeds, and funded by Dunhill Medical Trust.
Dr Bretherton said: “The ear is like a gateway through which we can tinker with the body’s metabolic balance, without the need for medication or invasive procedures. We believe these results are just the tip of the iceberg.”