The therapeutic potential of transcutaneous auricular VNS (taVNS) is currently being explored for numerous clinical applications. However, optimized response for different clinical indications may depend on specific neuromodulation parameters, and systematic assessments of their influence are still needed to optimize this promising approach.
We proposed that stimulation frequency would have a significant effect on nucleus tractus solitarii (NTS) functional MRI (fMRI) response to respiratory-gated taVNS (RAVANS).
Brainstem fMRI response to auricular RAVANS (cymba conchae) was assessed for four different stimulation frequencies (2, 10, 25, 100 Hz). Sham (no current) stimulation was used to control for respiration effects on fMRI signal.
Our findings demonstrated that RAVANS delivered at 100 Hz evoked the strongest brainstem response, localized to a cluster in the left (ipsilateral) medulla and consistent with purported NTS. A co-localized, although weaker, response was found for 2 Hz RAVANS. Furthermore, RAVANS delivered at 100 Hz also evoked stronger fMRI responses for important monoamine neurotransmitter source nuclei (LC, noradrenergic; MR, DR, serotonergic) and pain/homeostatic regulation nuclei (i.e. PAG).
Our fMRI results support previous localization of taVNS afference to pontomedullary aspect of NTS in the human brainstem, and demonstrate the significant influence of the stimulation frequency on brainstem fMRI response.