source: University of Colorado
Researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus have shown a direct link between vagus nerve stimulation and its association with learning centers in the brain. This discovery may lead to treatments that improve cognitive retention in both healthy and injured nervous systems.
The study was published last week in the journal a neuron
“We found that there is a direct link between the vagus nerve, the cholinergic system that regulates certain aspects of brain function, and motor cortical neurons essential for learning new skills,” said Kristen Weil, PhD, senior author of the research. Vice Chair of Research in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
“This could offer hope for patients with a variety of motor and cognitive disabilities, and one day help healthy individuals learn new skills faster.”
The researchers taught healthy mice a task that would normally be difficult to see if it would help improve learning. They discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve during the procedure helped them learn the task faster and achieve a higher level of performance. This showed that stimulating the vagus nerve can increase learning in a healthy nervous system.
The vagus nerve is critical because it regulates the functions of internal organs such as digestion, heart rate and breathing. It also helps control reflex actions such as coughing, swallowing, and sneezing.
The study also revealed a direct link between the vagus nerve and the cholinergic system necessary for learning and attention. Each time the vagus nerve is stimulated, the researchers can observe which neurons that control learning are activated within the cholinergic system.
Damage to this system has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other motor and cognitive conditions. Now that this connection is established in healthy nervous systems, Phile said it could lead to better treatment options for those whose systems have been damaged.
“The idea of being able to move the brain into a state where it’s able to learn new things is important for any disorders that have motor or cognitive impairments,” she said.
“We hope that vagus nerve stimulation will be associated with ongoing rehabilitation in disorders for patients recovering from stroke, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, or a number of other conditions.”
In addition to the study, Philae and her team applied for a grant that would allow them to use a non-surgical device to stimulate the vagus nerve to treat patients with multiple sclerosis who have movement deficits. She also hopes that this device will eventually help healthy people learn new skills faster.
“I think there is a huge untapped potential for using vagus nerve stimulation to help the brain heal itself,” she said. “By continuing to investigate the matter, we can eventually improve a patient’s recovery and open new doors for learning.”
About this Neuroscience Research News
author: Laura Kelly
source: University of Colorado
Contact: Laura Kelly – University of Colorado
picture: The image is in the public domain
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“Stimulation of the vagus nerve modulates the selective circuit through cholinergic reinforcement” by Cristin Welle et al. neuron
Vagus nerve stimulation modulates the selective circuit through cholinergic reinforcement
- VNS coupled with success enhances skilled motor learning in healthy animals
- The improved engine performance is attributed to the accelerated integration of the expert engine plan
- Reinforcement motor learning depends on cholinergic neuronal activity in the basal forebrain
- In the primary motor cortex, the VNS specifically modulates the neurons that activate the outcome
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a neuromodulating treatment for a wide and extended range of neurological conditions. However, the mechanism by which VNS affects CNS circuitry is not well described, which limits therapeutic improvement.
VNS leads to widespread brain activation, but effects on behavior are remarkably specific, suggesting a unique plasticity of neural circuits associated with behaviour.
To understand how VNS can lead to specific circuit modification, we took advantage of genetic tools including optogenetics and in vivo Calcium imaging in mice learning the skilled reaching task.
We found that VNS enhances skilled motor learning in healthy animals through a cholinergic reinforcing mechanism, which results in rapid consolidation of the expert access pathway. In the primary motor cortex (M1), the VNS drives a fine temporal modulation of neurons that respond to behavioral outcomes.
This suggests that VNS may accelerate motor fine-tuning in M1 via cholinergic signaling, opening new avenues for improving VNS to target specific disease-relevant circuits.