Could vagus nerve stimulation be utilized in stroke recovery?

Written by Alice Weatherston

The potential for the utilization of vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) in stroke recovery has been highlighted by a new study published recently in Stroke. The research marks the first evaluation of the efficacy of VNS in treating the weakness and paralysis often caused as a result of stroke.
The research team assigned 20 patients who were experiencing arm weakness due to stroke into two groups. One group received rehabilitation therapy only and the other received rehabilitation therapy plus VNS experimental therapy. Both groups underwent their interventions for a total of six weeks.

Utilizing the Fugl-Meyer assessment scale for stroke recovery, the researchers discovered that the group receiving VNS experimental treatment improved by on average 6 points more than those receiving rehabilitation therapy alone (9 and 3 points respectively). Some patients on VNS also reported increased motion and strength in their stroke-affected arms.

“This ‘first-in-humans’ study appears to demonstrate improvement in the recovery that stroke patients make,” commented study co-author Michael Kilgard (The University of Texas at Dallas, TX, USA). “This was a small study and there is more work to be done, but this is an exciting result.”

The demonstration of the safety and potential efficacy of VNS in stroke recovery patients is important given the limited success of oral drugs so far in improving impairments and disabilities following stroke incidents. The therapy also appears to solidify gains that can be made during physical therapy due to its ability to influence neural plasticity within the brain.

The team which were based at both The University of Glasgow (Scotland), where the trial took place, and The University of Texas at Dallas, have now opened a new US-based trial. The study is a multiple site double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.

Another co-author on the study, Robert Rennaker, commented: “We already have seen a number of benefits from VNS for other conditions. We hope that we ultimately will see such success for stroke patients.”

Source: The University of Texas at Dallas press release