Long-term Sustained Cognitive Benefits of Vagus Nerve Stimulation in Refractory Depression

J ECT. 2018 Dec;34(4):283-290. doi: 10.1097/YCT.0000000000000502.


Background: Treatment-resistant depression (TRD) is a serious chronic condition disabling patients functionally and cognitively. Chronic vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is recognized for the management of TRD, but few studies have examined its long-term effects on cognitive dysfunction in unipolar and bipolar resistant depression.

Objective: The purpose of this study was to assess the course of cognitive functions and clinical symptoms in a cohort of patients treated with VNS for TRD.

Methods: In 14 TRD patients with VNS, standardized clinical and neuropsychological measures covering memory, attention/executive functions, and psychomotor speed were analyzed prestimulation and up to 2 years poststimulation.

Results: Vagus nerve stimulation patients significantly improved on cognitive and clinical measures. Learning and memory improved rapidly after 1 month of stimulation, and other cognitive functions improved gradually over time. Cognitive improvements were sustained up to 2 years of treatment. At 1 month, improvement in Montgomery-Åsberg Depression Rating Scale scores was not correlated with changes in any of the cognitive scores, whereas at 12 months, the change in Montgomery-Åsberg Depression Rating Scale score was significantly correlated with several measures (Stroop interference, verbal fluency, and Rey-Osterrieth Complex Figure delayed recall).

Conclusions: In recent years, a growing interest in cognitive dysfunction in depression has emerged. Our results suggest that chronic VNS produces sustained clinical and cognitive improvements in TRD patients, with some mental functions improving as soon as 1 month after the initiation of the VNS therapy. Vagus nerve stimulation seems a very promising adjunctive therapy for TRD patients with cognitive impairment.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect
  • Cognition*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Depressive Disorder, Treatment-Resistant / psychology*
  • Depressive Disorder, Treatment-Resistant / therapy*
  • Executive Function
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Male
  • Memory
  • Mental Recall
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Vagus Nerve Stimulation / methods*