tVNS May Enhance Core Executive Functions

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Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation May Enhance Only Specific Aspects of the Core Executive Functions. A Randomized Crossover Trial.

Abstract
Background: Individuals are able to perform goal-directed behaviors thanks to executive functions. According to the neurovisceral integration model, executive functions are upregulated by brain areas such as the prefrontal and cingulate cortices, which are also crucially involved in controlling cardiac vagal activity. An array of neuroimaging studies already showed that these same brain areas are activated by transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS). Despite evidence toward effects of tVNS on specific executive functions such as inhibitory control, there have been no studies investigating what type of inhibition is improved by tVNS by systematically addressing them within the same experiment. Furthermore, the effect of tVNS on another core executive function, cognitive flexibility, has not yet been investigated.
Objective: We investigated the effects of tVNS on core executive functions such as inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility.
Methods: Thirty-two participants (nine women, M age = 23.17) took part in this study. Vagally mediated heart rate variability parameters (root mean square of successive differences, RMSSD, and high frequency, HF) were measured while participants performed four different cognitive tasks that mainly rely on different aspects of both the aforementioned executive functions.
Results: Despite clear conflict effects in the four tasks, only performance on the task used to measure set-shifting paradigm was improved by tVNS, with switch costs being lower during tVNS than during sham stimulation. Furthermore, HF increased during each of the cognitive flexibility tasks, although HF during tVNS did not differ from HF during sham stimulation.
Conclusion: The results indicate for the first time (a) that tVNS can increase cognitive flexibility in a set-shifting paradigm, and (b) that tVNS may exert a stronger effect on cognitive flexibility than inhibition. The present study provides only partial evidence for the neurovisceral integration model. Future studies should address further paradigms that demand cognitive flexibility, thus investigating this new hypothesis on the specificity of the tVNS effects on cognitive flexibility.

PMID: 32523510 [PubMed]

Front Neurosci. 2020;14:523

Authors: Borges U, Knops L, Laborde S, Klatt S, Raab M

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