Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a new method for preventing and treating seizures, and shows promise as a potential new antidepressant. The mechanisms of action of VNS are still unknown, although the afferent direct and secondary connections of the vagus nerve are well established and are the most likely route of VNS brain effects. Over the past several years, many groups have used functional brain imaging to better understand VNS effects on the brain. Since these studies differ somewhat in their methodologies, findings and conclusions, at first glance, this literature may appear inconsistent. Although disagreement exists regarding the specific locations and the direction of brain activation, the differences across studies are largely due to different methods, and the results are not entirely inconsistent. We provide an overview of these functional imaging studies of VNS. PET (positron emission tomography) and SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) studies have implicated several brain areas affected by VNS, without being able to define the key structures consistently and immediately activated by VNS. BOLD (blood oxygen level dependent) fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), with its relatively high spatio-temporal resolution, performed during VNS, can reveal the location and level of the brain's immediate response to VNS. As a whole, these studies demonstrate that VNS causes immediate and longer-term changes in brain regions with vagus innervations and which have been implicated in neuropsychiatric disorders. These include the thalamus, cerebellum, orbitofrontal cortex, limbic system, hypothalamus, and medulla. Functional neuroimaging studies have the potential to provide greater insight into the brain circuitry behind the activity of VNS.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
Funded in part by grants from the Dana Foundation and Cyberonics. The authors would like to thank William Buras (Cyberonics), James Russell and Burke Barrett (formerly of Cyberonics) and Drs. Thomas Henry, and Howard Ring, for helpful comments about this review.
- Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
- Functional neuroimaging
- Positron emission tomography (PET)
- Single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT)
- Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS)