Study provides greater insight into the link between the vagus nerve and the brain

Summary: Using stimulation, researchers discovered a direct connection between the vagus nerve and the brain’s learning centers. Vagus nerve stimulation, they found, increases learning in a healthy nervous system.

Source: University of Colorado

Researchers at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus have shown a direct link between stimulation of the vagus nerve and its connection to learning centers in the brain. The discovery could lead to treatments that will improve cognitive retention in healthy and injured nervous systems.

The study was published last week in the journal Neuron.

“We have concluded that there is a direct link between the vagus nerve, the cholinergic system that regulates certain aspects of brain function, and neurons in the motor cortex that are essential for learning new skills,” said Cristin Welle. , PhD, senior author of the article and vice chair of research for the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“It could give hope to patients with various motor and cognitive disorders, and one day help healthy people learn new skills faster.”

The researchers taught healthy mice a task that is normally difficult to see if it could help improve learning. They found that stimulating the vagus nerve during the process helped them learn the task much faster and achieve a higher level of performance. This showed that vagus nerve stimulation can increase learning in a healthy nervous system.

The vagus nerve is essential because it regulates internal organ functions like digestion, heart rate, and respiration. It also helps control reflex actions like coughing, swallowing and sneezing.

The study also revealed a direct connection between the vagus nerve and the cholinergic system which is essential for learning and attention. Each time the vagus nerve was stimulated, the researchers were able to observe neurons that control learning activated in the cholinergic system.

It shows a brain
This showed that vagus nerve stimulation can increase learning in a healthy nervous system. Image is in public domain

Damage to this system has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other motor and cognitive disorders. Now that this connection has been made in healthy nervous systems, Welle said it could lead to better treatment options for those whose systems have been damaged.

“The idea of ​​being able to move the brain into a state where it’s able to learn new things is important for any disorder that has motor or cognitive impairments,” she said.

“Our hope is that vagus nerve stimulation may be associated with continued disorder rehabilitation in patients recovering from stroke, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, or any number of disorders. ‘other conditions.’

In addition to the study, Welle and his team applied for a grant that would allow them to use a noninvasive device to stimulate the vagus nerve to treat patients with multiple sclerosis who have developed movement deficits. She also hopes that this device could eventually help healthy people learn new skills faster.

“I think there’s huge untapped potential in using vagus nerve stimulation to help the brain heal itself,” she said. “By continuing to study it, we can ultimately optimize patient recovery and open new doors of learning.”

About this neuroscience research news

Author: Laura Kelly
Source: University of Colorado
Contact: Laura Kelley – University of Colorado
Image: Image is in public domain

Original research: Access closed.
“Vagus nerve stimulation results in selective modulation of the circuit through cholinergic reinforcement” by Cristin Welle et al. neuron

See also

This shows brain scans from the study


Vagus nerve stimulation results in selective modulation of the circuit through cholinergic reinforcement

Strong points

  • Success-associated VNS improves skilled motor learning in healthy animals
  • The improvement in motor performance is due to the accelerated consolidation of an expert motor plan
  • Enhanced motor learning depends on cholinergic neural activity in the basal forebrain
  • In the primary motor cortex, VNS specifically modulates outcome-activated neurons


Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a neuromodulation therapy for a wide and growing set of neurological conditions. However, the mechanism by which VNS influences central nervous system circuitry is not well described, which limits therapeutic optimization.

VNS leads to widespread brain activation, but the effects on behavior are remarkably specific, indicating a plasticity unique to neural circuits engaged in behavior.

To understand how VNS can lead to specific circuit modulation, we used genetic tools including optogenetics and live calcium imaging in mice learning a skilled range task.

We find that VNS enhances skilled motor learning in healthy animals via a cholinergic reinforcement mechanism, producing rapid consolidation of an expert span trajectory. In the primary motor cortex (M1), the VNS drives precise temporal modulation of neurons that respond to behavioral outcomes.

This suggests that the VNS may accelerate motor refinement in M1 via cholinergic signaling, opening new avenues to optimize the VNS to target specific disease-relevant circuits.

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