Transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation with task-oriented training improves upper extremity function in patients with subacute stroke: a randomized clinical trial

Author: Meng-Huan Wang#1,2, Yi-Xiu Wang#1,2, Min Xie3, Li-Yan Chen1,2, Meng-Fei He1,2, Feng Lin2,3, Zhong-Li Jiang2,3
1 School of Rehabilitation Medicine, Nanjing Medical University, Nanjing, Jiangsu, China.
2 Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, The First Affiliated Hospital of Nanjing Medical University, Nanjing, Jiangsu, China.
3 Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, Sir Run Run Hospital, Nanjing Medical University, Nanjing, Jiangsu, China.
Conference/Journal: Front Neurosci
Date published: 2024 Mar 8
Other: Volume ID: 18 , Pages: 1346634 , Special Notes: doi: 10.3389/fnins.2024.1346634. , Word Count: 324

Transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation (taVNS) has emerged as a promising brain stimulation modality in poststroke upper extremity rehabilitation. Although several studies have examined the safety and reliability of taVNS, the mechanisms underlying motor recovery in stroke patients remain unclear.

This study aimed to investigate the effects of taVNS paired with task-oriented training (TOT) on upper extremity function in patients with subacute stroke and explore the potential underlying mechanisms.

In this double-blinded, randomized, controlled pilot trial, 40 patients with subacute stroke were randomly assigned to two groups: the VNS group (VG), receiving taVNS during TOT, and the Sham group (SG), receiving sham taVNS during TOT. The intervention was delivered 5 days per week for 4 weeks. Upper extremity function was measured using the Fugl-Meyer Assessment-Upper Extremity (FMA-UE), the Action Research Arm Test (ARAT). Activities of daily living were measured by the modified Barthel Index (MBI). Motor-evoked potentials (MEPs) were measured to evaluate cortical excitability. Assessments were administered at baseline and post-intervention. Additionally, the immediate effect of taVNS was detected using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) and heart rate variability (HRV) before intervention.

The VG showed significant improvements in upper extremity function (FMA-UE, ARAT) and activities of daily living (MBI) compared to the SG at post-intervention. Furthermore, the VG demonstrated a higher rate of elicited ipsilesional MEPs and a shorter latency of MEPs in the contralesional M1. In the VG, improvements in FMA-UE were significantly associated with reduced latency of contralesional MEPs. Additionally, fNIRS revealed increased activation in the contralesional prefrontal cortex and ipsilesional sensorimotor cortex in the VG in contrast to the SG. However, no significant between-group differences were found in HRV.

The combination of taVNS with TOT effectively improves upper extremity function in patients with subacute stroke, potentially through modulating the bilateral cortex excitability to facilitate task-specific functional recovery.

Keywords: functional near-infrared spectroscopy; motor evoked potentials; stroke; task-oriented training; transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation; upper extremity rehabilitation.

PMID: 38525376 PMCID: PMC10957639 DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2024.1346634