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Papers of the Week

2022 Jun 07

Biol Psychol

The multibranched nerve: vagal function beyond heart rate variability.


Karemaker JM
Biol Psychol. 2022 Jun 07:108378.
PMID: 35688294.


This paper reviews the many functions of the vagus nerve, to understand how they interact in daily life and what might be accomplished by therapeutical electrical stimulation. A short historical introduction on the discovery and name-giving of the cranial nerves numbers 9 to 12 is followed by an overview of the functions that are under lower brain stem control: heart (rate, contractility), intestine (swallowing, peristalsis and glands secretions, feeling of satiety), lungs (bronchoconstriction, lung-irritant and stretch receptor signaling), blood pressure (by vascular wall stress sensing) and blood gases by specialized receptors. Key in the review is the physiology behind beat-by-beat heart rate variations, how everyday life is reflected in its variability, from exciting moments to quiet sleep, with the 'common faint' or vasovagal collapse as extreme example. Next, the recently proposed role of the vagus nerve in limiting inflammation is discussed. This has led to adoption of an earlier developed technique for epilepsy treatment, i.e., electrical stimulation of one vagus nerve bundle in the neck, but now for immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and the scope is even widening to depression and cluster headache. However, the problem in application of whole vagus nerve stimulation is the lack of specificity: there is no way to titrate the stimulation to an observable effect variable. All nerves in the bundle, incoming and outgoing, can be 'hit', leading to side-effects which limit the intended application.