The pulse of inflammation: heart rate variability, the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway and implications for therapy

J Intern Med. 2011 Jan;269(1):45-53. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2796.2010.02321.x.


Biological therapeutics targeting TNF, IL-1 and IL-6 are widely used for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and a growing list of other syndromes, often with remarkable success. Now advances in neuroscience have collided with this therapeutic approach, perhaps rendering possible the development of nerve stimulators to inhibit cytokines. Action potentials transmitted in the vagus nerve culminate in the release of acetylcholine that blocks cytokine production by cells expressing acetylcholine receptors. The molecular mechanism of this cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway is attributable to signal transduction by the nicotinic alpha 7 acetylcholine receptor subunit, a regulator of the intracellular signals that control cytokine transcription and translation. Favourable preclinical data support the possibility that nerve stimulators may be added to the future therapeutic armamentarium, possibly replacing some drugs to inhibit cytokines.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / physiology*
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents / pharmacology
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / drug therapy
  • Inflammation / immunology
  • Inflammation / physiopathology*
  • Neuroimmunomodulation / physiology
  • Signal Transduction / physiology
  • Vagus Nerve / drug effects
  • Vagus Nerve / physiopathology


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents
  • Cytokines
  • Acetylcholine