The vagus nerve is the major constituent of the parasympathetic nervous system. Together with the antagonistic sympathetic system, it forms the autonomic nervous system, which regulates lots of reflexes and organ functions. The vagus is usually associated with “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” type of behaviors, as opposed to the ”fight or flight” functions of the sympathetic system.
The general calming effects of vagus nerve activity are being explored in several neuromodulation strategies, for example, for lowering blood pressure, soothing epilepsy, or overcoming depression.
Apart from these generalized calming functions, though, new work is beginning to show that the nerve also contributes to higher brain functions. Indeed, the nerve carries both, fibers that travel from the brain to peripheral organs, as well as ones from the periphery to the brain. So, it actually serves very much as a bidirectional interface between the body and the brain.
And this interface may be involved in complicated information processing tasks, as a research group in Colorado, USA, has found out. The authors have used CorTec micro sling cuff electrodes to stimulate the vagus nerve in awake behaving mice. The animals were trained in a motor task to use their right forepaws to extract a food pellet from an opening in a plexiglass training box.
What they found is astonishing: When the vagus nerve was stimulated immediately after a successful reaching movement (as opposed to other times), motor skill learning was significantly improved. Concurrently, vagus nerve stimulation seemed to alter the neutral coding in a specific neural population in the motor cortex of the population across the entire reach. Using a plethora of advanced neuroscience research techniques, including optogenetics and calcium imaging, the authors were able to pinpoint the motor learning improvement effect to a cholinergic neural pathway activity arising from the basal forebrain.
These results open up a whole new field of possible applications for vagus nerve neuromodulation. Boosting motor learning for rehabilitation purposes, e.g. after stroke, is only one of them.
Bowles S, Hickman J, Peng X, Williamson WR, Huang R, Washington K, Donegan D, Welle CG. Vagus nerve stimulation drives selective circuit modulation through cholinergic reinforcement. Neuron. 2022 Sep 7;110(17):2867-2885.e7. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2022.06.017. Epub 2022 Jul 19. PMID: 35858623.
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