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A technique called “electrical grounding” may moderate preterm infants’ electromagnetic exposure in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and improve their health outcomes, according to Penn State College of Medicine researchers.
Equipment in the NICU produces low-frequency electromagnetic fields that can have subtle yet measurable effects on the autonomic nervous system, the system that regulates involuntary body functions. Preterm infants may be especially vulnerable to these effects.
Previous research in adults has shown that exposure to electromagnetic fields can affect the vagus nerve, a key component of the autonomic nervous system which regulates the body’s internal organs during rest. Previous research also has shown that electrical grounding, which reduces the electrical charge to the body, can improve the functioning of the autonomic nervous system and the vagus nerve, producing improved vagal tone.
Vagal tone, which is measured by analyzing heart rate variability between inhalation and exhalation, is a valuable indicator of health. An earlier study performed with colleagues at Penn State found that low vagal tone in preterm infants is a marker of vulnerability to stress and a risk factor for developing necrotizing enterocolitis, an intestinal disorder that can have severe consequences. Strengthening vagal tone may reduce inflammation, guard against the development of necrotizing enterocolitis and offer protection from a variety of other conditions that can affect preterm infants.