Functional vagotopy in the cervical vagus nerve of the domestic pig: implications for the study of vagus nerve stimulation

J Neural Eng. 2020 Apr 9;17(2):026022. doi: 10.1088/1741-2552/ab7ad4.


Objective: Given current clinical interest in vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), there are surprisingly few studies characterizing the anatomy of the vagus nerve in large animal models as it pertains to on-and off-target engagement of local fibers. We sought to address this gap by evaluating vagal anatomy in the pig, whose vagus nerve organization and size approximates the human vagus nerve.

Approach: Here we combined microdissection, histology, and immunohistochemistry to provide data on key features across the cervical vagus nerve in a swine model, and compare our results to other animal models (mouse, rat, dog, non-human primate) and humans.

Main results: In a swine model we quantified the nerve diameter, number and diameter of fascicles, and distance of fascicles from the epineural surface where stimulating electrodes are placed. We also characterized the relative locations of the superior and recurrent laryngeal branches of the vagus nerve that have been implicated in therapy limiting side effects with common electrode placement. We identified key variants across the cohort that may be important for VNS with respect to changing sympathetic/parasympathetic tone, such as cross-connections to the sympathetic trunk. We discovered that cell bodies of pseudo-unipolar cells aggregate together to form a very distinct grouping within the nodose ganglion. This distinct grouping gives rise to a larger number of smaller fascicles as one moves caudally down the vagus nerve. This often leads to a distinct bimodal organization, or 'vagotopy'. This vagotopy was supported by immunohistochemistry where approximately half of the fascicles were immunoreactive for choline acetyltransferase, and reactive fascicles were generally grouped in one half of the nerve.

Significance: The vagotopy observed via histology may be advantageous to exploit in design of electrodes/stimulation paradigms. We also placed our data in context of historic and recent histology spanning multiple models, thus providing a comprehensive resource to understand similarities and differences across species.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dogs
  • Mice
  • Rats
  • Sus scrofa
  • Swine
  • Vagus Nerve
  • Vagus Nerve Stimulation*