Quantifying acute physiological biomarkers of transcutaneous cervical vagal nerve stimulation in the context of psychological stress.Brain Stimul 2019BS
Stress is associated with activation of the sympathetic nervous system, and can lead to lasting alterations in autonomic function and in extreme cases symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) is a potentially useful tool as a modulator of autonomic nervous system function, however currently available implantable devices are limited by cost and inconvenience.
The purpose of this study was to assess the effects of transcutaneous cervical VNS (tcVNS) on autonomic responses to stress.
Using a double-blind approach, we investigated the effects of active or sham tcVNS on peripheral cardiovascular and autonomic responses to stress using wearable sensing devices in 24 healthy human participants with a history of exposure to psychological trauma. Participants were exposed to acute stressors over a three-day period, including personalized scripts of traumatic events, public speech, and mental arithmetic tasks.
tcVNS relative to sham applied immediately after traumatic stress resulted in a decrease in sympathetic function and modulated parasympathetic/sympathetic autonomic tone as measured by increased pre-ejection period (PEP) of the heart (a marker of cardiac sympathetic function) of 4.2 ms (95% CI 1.6-6.8 ms, p < 0.01), decreased peripheral sympathetic function as measured by increased photoplethysmogram (PPG) amplitude (decreased vasoconstriction) by 47.9% (1.4-94.5%, p < 0.05), a 9% decrease in respiratory rate (-14.3 to -3.7%, p < 0.01). Similar effects were seen when tcVNS was applied after other stressors and in the absence of a stressor.
Wearable sensing modalities are feasible to use in experiments in human participants, and tcVNS modulates cardiovascular and peripheral autonomic responses to stress.