A pilot randomized controlled trial of supervised, at-home, self-administered transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation (taVNS) to manage long COVID symptoms

Author: Bashar W Badran1, Sarah M Huffman2, Morgan Dancy2, Christopher W Austelle2, Marom Bikson3, Steven A Kautz4,5, Mark S George2,4
1 Neuro-X Lab, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC, USA. Badran@musc.edu.
2 Brain Stimulation Division, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC, USA.
3 Department of Biomedical Engineering, The City College of New York of CUNY, New York, NY, USA.
4 Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, Charleston, SC, USA.
5 Department of Health Sciences and Research, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC, USA.
Conference/Journal: Bioelectron Med
Date published: 2022 Aug 25
Other: Volume ID: 8 , Issue ID: 1 , Pages: 13 , Special Notes: doi: 10.1186/s42234-022-00094-y. , Word Count: 323

Although the coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19) pandemic has now impacted the world for over two years, the persistent secondary neuropsychiatric effects are still not fully understood. These "long COVID" symptoms, also referred to as post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC), can persist for months after infection without any effective treatments. Long COVID involves a complex heterogenous symptomology and can lead to disability and limit work. Long COVID symptoms may be due to sustained inflammatory responses and prolonged immune response after infection. Interestingly, vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) may have anti-inflammatory effects, however, until recently, VNS could not be self-administered, at-home, noninvasively.

We created a double-blind, noninvasive transcutaneous auricular VNS (taVNS) system that can be self-administered at home with simultaneous remote monitoring of physiological biomarkers and video supervision by study staff. Subsequently, we carried out a pilot (n = 13) randomized, sham-controlled, trial with this system for four weeks to treat nine predefined long covid symptoms (anxiety, depression, vertigo, anosmia, ageusia, headaches, fatigue, irritability, brain fog). No in-person patient contact was needed, with informed consent, trainings, ratings, and all procedures being conducted remotely during the pandemic (2020-2021) and equipment being shipped to individuals' homes. This trial was registered on ClinicalTrials.gov under the identifier: NCT04638673 registered November 20, 2020.

Four-weeks of at-home self-administered taVNS (two, one-hour sessions daily, delivered at suprathreshold intensities) was feasible and safe. Although our trial was not powered to determine efficacy as an intervention in a heterogenous population, the trends in the data suggest taVNS may have a mild to moderate effect in reducing mental fatigue symptoms in a subset of individuals.

This innovative study demonstrates the safety and feasibility of supervised self-administered taVNS under a fully contactless protocol and suggests that future studies can safely investigate this novel form of brain stimulation at-home for a variety of neuropsychiatric and motor recovery applications.

Keywords: COVID-19; Long COVID; PASC; Post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection; SARTS-CoV-2; tVNS; taVNS.

PMID: 36002874 DOI: 10.1186/s42234-022-00094-y