Learnings from 30 years of reported efficacy and safety of vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) for epilepsy treatment: A critical review

Seizure. 2020 Dec:83:104-123. doi: 10.1016/j.seizure.2020.09.027. Epub 2020 Oct 10.


Three decades after its introduction as an adjuvant therapeutic option in the management of selective drug-resistant epilepsy cases (DRE), vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) retains growing interest. An implantable device was first approved for epilepsy in Europe in 1994 and in the United States (US) in 1997. Subsequent modifications improved the safety and the efficacy of the system. The most recent application of vagal neurostimulation is represented by transcutaneous devices that are claimed to have strong therapeutic potential. In this review, we sought to analyze the most meaningful available data describing the indications, safety and efficacy of the different approaches of VNS in clinical practice. Therefore, we identified studies reporting VNS efficacy and/or safety in epilepsy and its comorbidities from January 1990 to February 2020 from various databases including PubMed, Scopus, Cochrane, US government databases and VNS manufacturer published resources. In general, VNS efficacy becomes optimal around the sixth month of treatment and a 50-100 % seizure frequency reduction is achieved in approximately 45-65 % of the patients. However, some clinically relevant differences have been reported with specific factors such as epilepsy etiology or type, patient age as well as the delay of VNS therapy onset. VNS efficacy on seizure frequency has been demonstrated in both children and adults, in lesional and non-lesional cases, in focal and generalized epilepsies, on both seizures and epilepsy comorbidities. Regarding the latter, VNS can lead to an improvement of about 25-35 % in depression scores, 35 % in anxiety scores and 25 % in mood assessment scores. If non-invasive devices are undeniably safer, their efficacy is limited due to the scarcity of large cohort studies and the disparity of methodological approaches (study design and stimulation parameters). Overall, we believe that there is a progress margin for improving the safety of implantable devices and, above all, the effectiveness of the various VNS approaches.

Keywords: Depression; Refractory epilepsy; Vagus nerve stimulator; n-VNS; t-VNS.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Drug Resistant Epilepsy / complications
  • Drug Resistant Epilepsy / diagnosis
  • Drug Resistant Epilepsy / therapy*
  • Epilepsy / diagnosis
  • Epilepsy / therapy*
  • Europe
  • Humans
  • Seizures / diagnosis
  • Seizures / therapy*
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Vagus Nerve Stimulation* / adverse effects