Neural plasticity is widely believed to support functional recovery following brain damage. Vagus nerve stimulation paired with different forelimb movements causes long-lasting map plasticity in rat primary motor cortex that is specific to the paired movement. We tested the hypothesis that repeatedly pairing vagus nerve stimulation with upper forelimb movements would improve recovery of motor function in a rat model of stroke. Rats were separated into 3 groups: vagus nerve stimulation during rehabilitation (rehab), vagus nerve stimulation after rehab, and rehab alone. Animals underwent 4 training stages: shaping (motor skill learning), prelesion training, postlesion training, and therapeutic training. Rats were given a unilateral ischemic lesion within motor cortex and implanted with a left vagus nerve cuff. Animals were allowed 1 week of recovery before postlesion baseline training. During the therapeutic training stage, rats received vagus nerve stimulation paired with each successful trial. All 17 trained rats demonstrated significant contralateral forelimb impairment when performing a bradykinesia assessment task. Forelimb function was recovered completely to prelesion levels when vagus nerve stimulation was delivered during rehab training. Alternatively, intensive rehab training alone (without stimulation) failed to restore function to prelesion levels. Delivering the same amount of stimulation after rehab training did not yield improvements compared with rehab alone. These results demonstrate that vagus nerve stimulation repeatedly paired with successful forelimb movements can improve recovery after motor cortex ischemia and may be a viable option for stroke rehabilitation.
Keywords: cortical ischemia; motor cortex; plasticity; recovery; rehabilitation; stroke.
© The Author(s) 2014.