Cortical modulation of nociception by galvanic vestibular stimulation: A potential clinical tool?

Brain Stimul. 2020 Jan-Feb;13(1):60-68. doi: 10.1016/j.brs.2019.10.009. Epub 2019 Oct 12.


Objective: Vestibular afferents converge with nociceptive ones within the posterior insula, and can therefore modulate nociception. Consistent with this hypothesis, caloric vestibular stimulation (CVS) has been shown to reduce experimental and clinical pain. Since CVS can induce undesirable effects in a proportion of patients, here we explored an alternative means to activate non-invasively the vestibular pathways using innocuous bi-mastoid galvanic stimulation (GVS), and assessed its effects on experimental pain.

Methods: Sixteen healthy volunteers participated in this study. Experimental pain was induced by noxious laser-heat stimuli to the left hand while recording pain ratings and related brain potentials (LEPs). We evaluated changes of these indices during left- or right-anodal GVS (cathode on contralateral mastoid), and contrasted them with those during sham GVS, optokinetic vestibular stimulation (OKS) using virtual reality, and attentional distraction to ascertain the vestibular-specific analgesic effects of GVS.

Results: GVS elicited brief sensations of head/trunk deviation, inoffensive to all participants. Both active GVS conditions showed analgesic effects, greater for the right anodal stimulation. OKS was helpful to attain significant LEP reductions during the left-anodal stimulation. Neither sham-GVS nor the distraction task were able to modulate significantly pain ratings or LEPs.

Conclusions: GVS appeared as a well-tolerated and powerful procedure for the relief of experimental pain, probably through physiological interaction within insular nociceptive networks. Either isolated or in combination with other types of vestibular activation (e.g., optokinetic stimuli), GVS deserves being tested in clinical settings.

Keywords: Anti-nociception; Galvanic vestibular stimulation; Painful laser; Posterior insula.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Electric Stimulation Therapy / methods*
  • Female
  • Galvanic Skin Response / physiology*
  • Hot Temperature / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Nociception / physiology*
  • Pain / diagnosis
  • Pain / physiopathology
  • Pain Management / methods*
  • Pain Measurement / methods
  • Vestibular Nerve / physiology*
  • Young Adult