Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation in humans induces pupil dilation and attenuates alpha oscillations

Omer Sharon, Firas Fahoum, Yuval Nir*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

85 Scopus citations


Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is widely used to treat drug-resistant epilepsy and depression. While the precise mechanisms mediating its long-term therapeutic effects are not fully resolved, they likely involve locus coeruleus (LC) stimulation via the nucleus of the solitary tract, which receives afferent vagal inputs. In rats, VNS elevates LC firing and forebrain noradrenaline levels, whereas LC lesions suppress VNS therapeutic efficacy. Noninvasive transcutaneous VNS (tVNS) uses electrical stimulation that targets the auricular branch of the vagus nerve at the cymba conchae of the ear. However, the extent to which tVNS mimics VNS remains unclear. Here, we investigated the short-term effects of tVNS in healthy human male volunteers (n = 24), using high-density EEG and pupillometry during visual fixation at rest. We compared short (3.4 s) trials of tVNS to sham electrical stimulation at the earlobe (far from the vagus nerve branch) to control for somatosensory stimulation. Although tVNS and sham stimulation did not differ in subjective intensity ratings, tVNS led to robust pupil dilation (peaking 4-5 s after trial onset) that was significantly higher than following sham stimulation. We further quantified, using parallel factor analysis, how tVNS modulates idle occipital alpha (8-13Hz) activity identified in each participant. We found greater attenuation of alpha oscillations by tVNS than by sham stimulation. This demonstrates that tVNS reliably induces pupillary and EEG markers of arousal beyond the effects of somatosensory stimulation, thus supporting the hypothesis that tVNS elevates noradrenaline and other arousal-promoting neuromodulatory signaling, and mimics invasive VNS.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)320-330
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number2
StatePublished - 13 Jan 2021


FundersFunder number
Herczeg Institute on Aging
Naomi Foundation
Achelis Foundation
Israel Science Foundation
Tel Aviv University


    • Alpha oscillations
    • EEG
    • Noradrenaline
    • Pupil
    • TVNS
    • Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation


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