The inflammatory reflex is a physiological mechanism through which the nervous system maintains immunologic homeostasis by modulating innate and adaptive immunity. We postulated that the reflex might be harnessed therapeutically to reduce pathological levels of inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis by activating its prototypical efferent arm, termed the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway. To explore this, we determined whether electrical neurostimulation of the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway reduced disease severity in the collagen-induced arthritis model.
Rats implanted with vagus nerve cuff electrodes had collagen-induced arthritis induced and were followed for 15 days. Animals underwent active or sham electrical stimulation once daily from day 9 through the conclusion of the study. Joint swelling, histology, and levels of cytokines and bone metabolism mediators were assessed.
Compared with sham treatment, active neurostimulation of the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway resulted in a 52% reduction in ankle diameter (p = 0.02), a 57% reduction in ankle diameter (area under curve; p = 0.02) and 46% reduction overall histological arthritis score (p = 0.01) with significant improvements in inflammation, pannus formation, cartilage destruction, and bone erosion (p = 0.02), accompanied by numerical reductions in systemic cytokine levels, not reaching statistical significance. Bone erosion improvement was associated with a decrease in serum levels of receptor activator of NF-κB ligand (RANKL) from 132±13 to 6±2 pg/mL (mean±SEM, p = 0.01).