Modulation of brainstem activity and connectivity by respiratory-gated auricular vagal afferent nerve stimulation in migraine patients

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Abstract

Migraine pathophysiology includes altered brainstem excitability, and recent neuromodulatory approaches aimed at controlling migraine episodes have targeted key brainstem relay and modulatory nuclei. In this study, we evaluated the impact of respiratory-gated auricular vagal afferent nerve stimulation (RAVANS), a novel neuromodulatory intervention based on an existing transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation approach, in the modulation of brainstem activity and connectivity in migraine patients. We applied 3T–functional magnetic resonance imaging with improved in-plane spatial resolution (2.62 × 2.62 mm) in episodic migraine (interictal) and age- and sex-matched healthy controls to evaluate brain response to RAVANS (gated to either inhalation or exhalation) and sham stimulation. We further investigated RAVANS modulation of tactile trigeminal sensory afference response in the brainstem using air-puff stimulation directed to the forehead during functional magnetic resonance imaging. Compared with sham and inhalatory-gated RAVANS (iRAVANS), exhalatory-gated RAVANS (eRAVANS) activated an ipsilateral pontomedullary region consistent with nucleus tractus solitarii (NTS). During eRAVANS, NTS connectivity was increased to anterior insula and anterior midcingulate cortex, compared with both sham and iRAVANS, in migraine patients. Increased connectivity was inversely correlated with relative time to the next migraine attack, suggesting clinical relevance to this change in connectivity. Poststimulation effects were also noted immediately after eRAVANS, as we found increased activation in putative pontine serotonergic (ie, nucleus raphe centralis) and noradrenergic (ie, locus coeruleus) nuclei in response to trigeminal sensory afference. Regulation of activity and connectivity of brainstem and cortical regions involved in serotonergic and noradrenergic regulation and pain modulation may constitute an underlying mechanism supporting beneficial clinical outcomes for eRAVANS applied for episodic migraine.

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