Vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) is an approved treatment for epilepsy and is currently under investigation as a therapy for other disorders, including depression, anxiety and Alzheimer's disease. This review examines the pre-clinical and clinical literature relating to VNS. A brief historical perspective is given, followed by consideration of the efficacy of the various clinical applications of VNS. Finally, what is known about the mechanism by which VNS exerts clinical benefit is considered. It is concluded that although the precise mechanism of action of VNS is still unknown, the search for the mechanism has the potential to lend new insight into the neuropathology of depression. It is important that prior assumptions about the influence of VNS on particular aspects of brain function do not constrain the investigations.