When you think of the role of your tongue, you probably immediately think of its role in tasting, talking and swallowing. Did you know the tongue is directly connected to the brain? There is a hub of nerves at the tip of the tongue consisting of about 50-60 nerve branches.1 Picture babies and children in their developing years using their mouths and tongues to explore everything. It is an important learning tool. Have you ever noticed a child coloring with his or her tongue sticking out? How about an athlete focusing in a game?
Researchers hypothesize various theories as to why deep thinking or focusing tasks can lead to engagement of the tongue. The first is something called motor overflow as the network within the brain for language overlaps with the network for fine motor activation of the hands. When the neurons fire for fine motor skills, they may overlap into neighboring tissue for language leading to the use of the mouth and tongue. A second theory is that this process is evolutionary as the hands were first involved in language and through time as early humans started using more complex tools, the hands became occupied leading to the dominant form of communication with the mouth and tongue.2
The tongue-brain connection has been established with such a rich nerve hub as mentioned. Because of this accessible highway to the brain, scientists have looked into ways of accessing the brain through the tongue. Researchers investigated and determined that shocking the tongue may improve brain rehabilitation and repair neural damage in patients with conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Huh? How could shocking the tongue help? The focus and mechanism of this treatment is brain neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to make new connections and networks. Researchers believe that tongue shocks may be a direct pathway to forming new nerve connections, a necessary repair mechanism for the damaged brain now rampant with bad nerve connections. By shocking the tongue, impulses cruise along the highway from the tongue to the brain, leading to the release of neurotransmitters and the development of new brain pathways.
The healing power of this therapy is thought to come from the induction of neuroplasticity. A device called the Portable Neuromodulation Stimulator (PoNS) provides the electrical stimulation to the tongue. A study demonstrated significant changes in brain wave activity after just one 20-minute PoNS session as well as other findings consistent with neuroplasticity.3 Just last year, the FDA approved marketing for this device for use in MS patients to improve gait.4
The effect of electrical stimulation of the tongue was assessed in MS patients in a 14-week study.5 The study used electrical stimulation in combination with intensive cognitive and physical rehabilitation targeting memory, balance and gait. Brain changes were also assessed in this study via functional MRI. The patients treated with tongue stimulation demonstrated neuroplasticity, greater cognitive improvement and twice the improvement in fluidity and balance compared to the control group. Another study supported these findings, showing significant improvements in balance, walking ability, fatigue and MS impact scores (a measurement of the psychological and physical impact of disease).6
This has become of great interest to the military for use in service members suffering from neurological diseases including the great percentage suffering from TBI. In a study using translingual neurostimulation plus physical therapy among patients with mild to moderate TBI, patients had significant improvements in sleep quality, balance, gait, and had a reduction in headaches and fall frequency.7 In another study among mild to moderate TBI patients, there was demonstrated increased brain volume after treatment as well as improvement in balance, gait, movement and executive function.8
Many TBI patients, like myself, carry on to suffer from chronic tinnitus. Researchers found that electrostimulation to the tongue with a sound program using various frequencies of sound can reduce tinnitus for up to one year after the treatment!9
Electrical stimulation of the tongue holds great promise for many debilitating and disabling conditions. Aside from MS and TBI, this therapy is also being investigated for use in patients with stroke deficits, tinnitus, Parkinson’s and vision loss. Shocking the tongue may be a catalyst for neuroplasticity and re-training the brain.