Transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation (taVNS) given for poor feeding in at-risk infants also improves their motor abilities

J Pediatr Rehabil Med. 2022;15(3):447-457. doi: 10.3233/PRM-210090.


Purpose: Transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation (taVNS) is a non-invasive neuromodulation technique that may improve oromotor skills when paired with feeding in at-risk infants, but effects on other motor function and how motor function relates to white matter (WM) microstructure are unknown.

Methods: In this prospective study, infants failing oral feeds and slated for gastrostomy tube (G-tube) placement received taVNS paired with bottle feeding daily for 2-3 weeks. The effects of taVNS-paired feeding on general and specific head movements were investigated using the Specific Test of Early infant motor Performance (STEP) and diffusion MRI obtained before and after taVNS treatment. Scores between and within groups (taVNS responders, attained full oral feeds; non-responders, received G-tubes) were compared.

Results: Performance on head movement items improved significantly in responders but not in non-responders (p < 0.05). Total STEP scores were significantly higher in responders after taVNS treatment than non-responders (p = 0.04). One STEP item, rolling by arm, was associated with significantly greater change in WM tract microstructure (p < 0.05) in the responders.

Conclusion: These results suggest that pairing feeding with taVNS may affect specific head and neck movements to a greater extent in infants who are able to attain full oral feeds.

Keywords: Diffusion MRI; Early motor movement; Oral-feed; STEP; infant development; taVNS.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Feeding and Eating Disorders*
  • Humans
  • Prospective Studies
  • Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation* / methods
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology
  • Vagus Nerve Stimulation* / methods