Transcutaneous cervical vagus nerve stimulation improves sensory performance in humans: a randomized controlled crossover pilot study

Sci Rep. 2024 Feb 17;14(1):3975. doi: 10.1038/s41598-024-54026-8.


Accurate senses depend on high-fidelity encoding by sensory receptors and error-free processing in the brain. Progress has been made towards restoring damaged sensory receptors. However, methods for on-demand treatment of impaired central sensory processing are scarce. Prior invasive studies demonstrated that continuous vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) in rodents can activate the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine system to rapidly improve central sensory processing. Here, we investigated whether transcutaneous VNS improves sensory performance in humans. We conducted three sham-controlled experiments, each with 12 neurotypical adults, that measured the effects of transcutaneous VNS on metrics of auditory and visual performance, and heart rate variability (HRV). Continuous stimulation was delivered to cervical (tcVNS) or auricular (taVNS) branches of the vagus nerve while participants performed psychophysics tasks or passively viewed a display. Relative to sham stimulation, tcVNS improved auditory performance by 37% (p = 0.00052) and visual performance by 23% (p = 0.038). Participants with lower performance during sham conditions experienced larger tcVNS-evoked improvements (p = 0.0040). Lastly, tcVNS increased HRV during passive viewing, corroborating vagal engagement. No evidence for an effect of taVNS was observed. These findings validate the effectiveness of tcVNS in humans and position it as a method for on-demand interventions of impairments associated with central sensory processing dysfunction.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology
  • Humans
  • Locus Coeruleus
  • Pilot Projects
  • Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation* / methods
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology
  • Vagus Nerve Stimulation* / methods