Targeting the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway with vagus nerve stimulation in patients with Covid-19?

Bioelectron Med. 2020 Jul 29;6:15. doi: 10.1186/s42234-020-00051-7. eCollection 2020.


Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), at the origin of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, is characterized by a dramatic cytokine storm in some critical patients with COVID-19. This storm is due to the release of high levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines such as interleukin (IL)-1 β, IL-6, tumor necrosis factor (TNF), and chemokines by respiratory epithelial and dendritic cells, and macrophages. We hypothesize that this cytokine storm and the worsening of patients' health status can be dampened or even prevented by specifically targeting the vagal-driven cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway (CAP). The CAP is a concept that involves an anti-inflammatory effect of vagal efferents by the release of acetylcholine (ACh). Nicotinic acetylcholine receptor alpha7 subunit (α7nAChRs) is required for ACh inhibition of macrophage-TNF release and cytokine modulation. Hence, targeting the α7nAChRs through vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) could be of interest in the management of patients with SARS-CoV-2 infection. Indeed, through the wide innervation of the organism by the vagus nerve, especially the lungs and gastrointestinal tract, VNS appears as a serious candidate for a few side effect treatment that could dampen or prevent the cytokine storm observed in COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms. Finally, a continuous vagal tone monitoring in patients with COVID-19 could be used as a predictive marker of COVID-19 illness course but also as a predictive marker of response to COVID-19 treatment such as VNS or others.

Keywords: COVID-19; Cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway; SARS-CoV-2; Vagus nerve; Vagus nerve stimulation; α7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor.