Electrical grounding (EG) may assist preterm infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) as they overcome health and maturity challenges, research shows.
In a first-ever study, the effects of EG on vagal tone in preterm infants in the NICU were evaluated. Previous research has proven that EG can improve the way the autonomic nervous system functions and strengthen the vagal tone in adults. This study wanted to find out how the EG technique would affect infants in the NICU.
Vagal tone and the autonomic nervous system
The vagus nerve works as a part of the autonomic nervous system to keep internal organs regulated while a person is resting. Between an inhale and an exhale, heart rate variability can be measured and analyzed. This is called vagal tone.
Vagal tone can be weakened by electromagnetic fields that equipment in the NICU generate. The biological effects of these fields can produce biological effects on the infants. The lower the vagal tone in these infants, the more vulnerable they are to stress and the risk of developing necrotizing enterocolitis, an intestinal disorder with potentially life-threatening consequences
Strengthened vagal tone can reduce inflammation and offer protection from a variety of other conditions that can affect preterm infants. With a grounding technique working to raise the vagal tone, it can also improve the babies' resilience, mitigate the challenges of being preterm, and keep them balanced.
First, researchers measured the electric field and magnetic flux density strengths in the NICU environment and around the incubators. They also measured the electric potential on the skin of the infants.
Then, a patch electrode was attached to both the infants and a ground outlet. 26 infants were measured for skin potential and 20 infants were measured for heart rate variability, or vagal tone.
Researchers were able to conclude that the electrical environment in the NICU was affecting the autonomic balance of the infants.
During EG, the infants seemed more relaxed. The EG technique increased vagal tone by 67%, heightening the babies' resilience to stress and lowering their risk of neonatal morbidity. The electrical signals measured on the skin before EG were at the exact frequency of the electrical equipment in the NICU, but after EG dropped by about 95%.
More research is needed, as the study was limited by sample size, and could lead to a complete redesign of incubators in the NICU, to keep babies grounded and free from electric fields.