Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation - A brief introduction and overview

Author: Max J Hilz1
1 Department of Neurology, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Erlangen, Germany; Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY, USA. Electronic address:
Conference/Journal: Auton Neurosci
Date published: 2022 Sep 27
Other: Volume ID: 243 , Pages: 103038 , Special Notes: doi: 10.1016/j.autneu.2022.103038. , Word Count: 273

Invasive cervical vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is approved for the treatment of epilepsies, depression, obesity, and for stroke-rehabilitation. The procedure requires surgery, has side-effects, is expensive and not readily available. Consequently, transcutaneous VNS (tVNS) has been developed 20 years ago as non-invasive, less expensive, and easily applicable alternative. Since the vagus nerve reaches the skin at the outer acoustic canal and ear, and reflex-responses such as the ear-cough-reflex or the auriculo-cardiac reflex have been observed upon auricular stimulation, the ear seems well suited for tVNS. However, several sensory nerves with variable fiber-density and significant overlap innervate the outer ear: the auricular branch of the vagus nerve (ABVN), the auriculotemporal nerve, greater auricular nerve, and to some extent the lesser occipital nerve. VNS requires activation of Aβ-fibers which are far less present in the ABVN than the cervical vagus nerve. Thus, optimal stimulation sites and parameters, and tVNS-algorithms need to be further explored. Unravelling central pathways and structures that mediate tVNS-effects is another challenge. tVNS impulses reach the nucleus of the solitary tract and activate the locus-coeruleus-norepinephrine system. However, many more brain areas are activated or deactivated upon VNS, including structures of the central autonomic network and the limbic system. Still, the realm of therapeutic tVNS applications grows rapidly and includes medication-refractory epilepsies, depressive mood disorders, headaches including migraine, pain, heart failure, gastrointestinal inflammatory diseases and many more. tVNS might become a standard tool to enhance autonomic balance and function in various autonomic, neurological, psychiatric, rheumatologic, as well as other diseases.

Keywords: Auricular branch of the vagus nerve; Concha cymba; Locus coeruleus; Nucleus tractus solitarii; Tragus; Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation.

PMID: 36201901 DOI: 10.1016/j.autneu.2022.103038