Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation and extinction of prepared fear: A conceptual non-replication

Sci Rep. 2018 Jul 31;8(1):11471. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-29561-w.


Transcutaneous stimulation of the auricular branch of the vagus nerve (tVNS) may accelerate fear extinction in healthy humans. Here, we aimed to investigate this hypothesis in healthy young participants in a prepared learning paradigm, using spider pictures as conditioned stimuli. After a fear conditioning phase, participants were randomly allocated to receive tVNS (final N = 42) or sham stimulation (final N = 43) during an extinction phase. Conditioned fear was assessed using US expectancy ratings, skin conductance and fear potentiated startle responses. After successful fear acquisition, participants in both groups showed a reduction of fear over the course of the extinction phase. There were no between-group differences in extinction rates for physiological indices of fear. Contrary to previous findings, participants in the tVNS condition also did not show accelerated declarative extinction learning. Participants in the tVNS condition did have lower initial US expectancy ratings for the CS- trials than those who received sham stimulation, which may indicate an enhanced processing of safety cues due to tVNS. In conclusion, the expected accelerated extinction due to tVNS was not observed. The results from this study call for more research on the optimal tVNS stimulation intensity settings.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety Disorders / physiopathology
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology*
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology
  • Male
  • Reflex, Startle / physiology
  • Skin / physiopathology*
  • Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation / methods
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology*
  • Vagus Nerve Stimulation / methods
  • Young Adult