Cardiovascular autonomic effects of transcutaneous auricular nerve stimulation via the tragus in the rat involve spinal cervical sensory afferent pathways.Brain Stimul 2019 Sep - Oct; 12(5):1151-1158BS
Electrical stimulation on select areas of the external auricular dermatome influences the autonomic nervous system. It has been postulated that activation of the Auricular Branch of the Vagus Nerve (ABVN) mediates such autonomic changes. However, the underlying neural pathways mediating these effects are unknown and, further, our understanding of the anatomical distribution of the ABVN in the auricle has now been questioned.
To investigate the effects of electrical stimulation of the tragus on autonomic outputs in the rat and probe the underlying neural pathways.
Central neuronal projections from nerves innervating the external auricle were investigated by injections of the transganglionic tracer cholera toxin B chain (CTB) into the right tragus of Wistar rats. Physiological recordings of heart rate, perfusion pressure, respiratory rate and sympathetic nerve activity were made in an anaesthetic free Working Heart Brainstem Preparation (WHBP) of the rat and changes in response to electrical stimulation of the tragus analysed.
Neuronal tracing from the tragus revealed that the densest CTB labelling was within laminae III-IV of the dorsal horn of the upper cervical spinal cord, ipsilateral to the injection sites. In the medulla oblongata, CTB labelled afferents were observed in the paratrigeminal nucleus, spinal trigeminal tract and cuneate nucleus. Surprisingly, only sparse labelling was observed in the vagal afferent termination site, the nucleus tractus solitarius. Recordings made from rats at night time revealed more robust sympathetic activity in comparison to day time rats, thus subsequent experiments were conducted in rats at night time. Electrical stimulation was delivered across the tragus for 5 min. Direct recording from the sympathetic chain revealed a central sympathoinhibition by up to 36% following tragus stimulation. Sympathoinhibition remained following sectioning of the cervical vagus nerve ipsilateral to the stimulation site, but was attenuated by sectioning of the upper cervical afferent nerve roots.
Inhibition of the sympathetic nervous system activity upon electrical stimulation of the tragus in the rat is mediated at least in part through sensory afferent projections to the upper cervical spinal cord. This challenges the notion that tragal stimulation is mediated by the auricular branch of the vagus nerve and suggests that alternative mechanisms may be involved.