Cardiovascular disease remains a major cause of disability and death worldwide. Autonomic imbalance, characterized by suppressed vagal (parasympathetic) activity and increased sympathetic activity, correlates with various pathological conditions, including heart failure, arrhythmia, ischaemia/reperfusion injury and hypertension. Conventionally, pharmacological interventions, such as β-blocker treatment, have primarily targeted suppressing sympathetic over-activation, while vagal modulation has always been neglected. Emerging evidence has documented the improvement of cardiac and vascular function mediated by the vagal nerve. Many investigators have tried to explore the effective ways to enhance vagal tone and normalize the autonomic nervous system. In this review, we attempt to give an overview of these therapeutic strategies, including direct vagal activation (electrical vagal stimulation, ACh administration and ACh receptor activation), pharmacological modulation (adenosine, cholinesterase inhibitors, statins) and exercise training. This overview provides valuable information for combination therapy, contributing to establishment of a comprehensive system on vagal modulation from the aspects of clinical application and lifestyle improvement. In addition, the mechanisms contributing to the benefits of enhancing vagal tone are diverse and have not yet been fully defined. We endeavour to outline the recent findings that advance our knowledge regarding the many favourable effects exerted by vagal activation: anti-inflammatory pathways, modulation of NOS and NO signalling, regulation of redox state, improvement of mitochondrial biogenesis and function, and potential calcium regulation. This review may help to develop novel therapeutic strategies targeting enhancing vagal activity for the treatment of cardiovascular diseases.
© 2014 The British Pharmacological Society.