The effect of transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation on fear generalization and subsequent fear extinction

Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2019 May;161:192-201. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2019.04.006. Epub 2019 Apr 12.


Fear overgeneralization is thought to be one of the cardinal processes underlying anxiety disorders, and a determinant of the onset, maintenance and recurrence of these disorders. Animal studies have shown that stimulating the vagus nerve (VNS) affects neuronal pathways implicated in pattern separation and completion, suggesting it may reduce the generalization of a fear memory to novel situations. In a one-day study, 58 healthy students were subjected to a fear conditioning, fear generalization, and fear extinction paradigm. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either transcutaneous auricular VNS (tVNS; final N = 29) or sham stimulation (final N = 29) during the generalization and extinction phases. tVNS did not affect fear generalization, as reflected by US expectancy ratings and fear potentiated startle responses. However, participants who received tVNS reported lower US expectancy ratings to the CS+ during the extinction phase, possibly reflecting a stronger declarative extinction of fear. No effects of tVNS on fear potentiated startle responses during extinction were found. The pattern of findings regarding extinction of declarative fear suggest a facilitating effect of tVNS.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology*
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Female
  • Generalization, Psychological / physiology*
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reflex, Startle / physiology
  • Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation*
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology*
  • Young Adult