Non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation boosts mood recovery after effort exertion

Psychol Med. 2022 Oct;52(14):3029-3039. doi: 10.1017/S0033291720005073. Epub 2021 Feb 15.


Background: Mood plays an important role in our life which is illustrated by the disruptive impact of aberrant mood states in depression. Although vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) has been shown to improve symptoms of depression, the exact mechanism is still elusive, and it is an open question whether non-invasive VNS could be used to swiftly and robustly improve mood.

Methods: Here, we investigated the effect of left- and right-sided transcutaneous auricular VNS (taVNS) v. a sham control condition on mood after the exertion of physical and cognitive effort in 82 healthy participants (randomized cross-over design) using linear mixed-effects and hierarchical Bayesian analyses of mood ratings.

Results: We found that 90 min of either left-sided or right-sided taVNS improved positive mood [b = 5.11, 95% credible interval, CI (1.39-9.01), 9.6% improvement relative to the mood intercept, BF10 = 7.69, pLME = 0.017], yet only during the post-stimulation phase. Moreover, lower baseline scores of positive mood were associated with greater taVNS-induced improvements in motivation [r = -0.42, 95% CI (-0.58 to -0.21), BF10 = 249].

Conclusions: We conclude that taVNS boosts mood after a prolonged period of effort exertion with concurrent stimulation and that acute motivational effects of taVNS are partly dependent on initial mood states. Collectively, our results show that taVNS may help quickly improve affect after a mood challenge, potentially by modulating interoceptive signals contributing to the reappraisal of effortful behavior. This suggests that taVNS could be a useful add-on to current behavioral therapies.

Keywords: affect; interoceptive signals; motivation; tVNS; vagal afferents.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bayes Theorem
  • Humans
  • Motivation
  • Physical Exertion
  • Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation* / methods
  • Vagus Nerve Stimulation* / methods