Modulation of visual processing of food by transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS)

Helena Alicart, Marcus Heldmann, Martin Göttlich, Martina A. Obst, Marc Tittgemeyer, Thomas F. Münte*

*Corresponding author for this work


Present project is concerned with the possibility to modulate the neural regulation of food intake by non-invasive stimulation of the vagus nerve. This nerve carries viscero-afferent information from the gut and other internal organs and therefore serves an important role in ingestive behavior. The electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve (VNS) is a qualified procedure in the treatment of drug-resistant epilepsy and depression. Since weight loss is a known common side effect of VNS treatment in patients with implanted devices, VNS is evaluated as a treatment of obesity. To investigate potential VNS-related changes in the cognitive processing of food-related items, 21 healthy participants were recorded in a 3-Tesla scanner in two counterbalanced sessions. Participants were presented with 72 food pictures and asked to rate how much they liked that food. Before entering the scanner subjects received a 1-h sham or verum stimulation, which was implemented transcutanously with a Cerbomed NEMOS® device. We found significant activations in core areas of the vagal afferent pathway, including left brainstem, thalamus, temporal pole, amygdala, insula, hippocampus, and supplementary motor area for the interaction between ratings (high vs low) and session (verum vs sham stimulation). Significant activations were also found for the main effect of verum compared to sham stimulation in the left inferior and superior parietal cortex. These results demonstrate an effect of tVNS on food image processing even with a preceding short stimulation period. This is a necessary prerequisite for a therapeutic application of tVNS which has to be evaluated in longer-term studies.

Original languageEnglish
JournalBrain Imaging and Behavior
Publication statusPublished - 14.09.2020

Research Areas and Centers

  • Academic Focus: Center for Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM)


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