The technique, known as targeted plasticity therapy (TPT), pairs physical movements with precisely timed vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) via a device implanted on the nerve in the neck.
The vagus nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system and oversees several functions, including circulation and digestion. Stimulating the nerve initiates neural plasticity, or a reorganization of the brain’s circuitry. The idea behind TPT, researchers say, is that synchronizing VNS with movement accelerates plasticity in a damaged brain, and with it, recovery.
Published in the journal Stroke, the pilot study involved 17 people across the country who had suffered a stroke between four months and five years prior. Researchers implanted a VNS device in each subject; participants then received six weeks of in-clinic rehab followed by a home exercise program. About half were treated with active VNS while the rest received control VNS. All were assessed one, 30 and 90 days after therapy with a widely used, stroke-specific measure of performance impairment.
Findings indicate that TPT, paired with traditional motor-skill rehabilitation, is not only safe, but also twice as effective as rehab alone.
“Stroke is too common and too debilitating for us to tolerate the status quo,” said study co-author Jane Wigginton, M.D., the chief medical officer at UT Dallas’ Texas Biomedical Device Center who led the study’s Dallas site.