Vagus Nerve Stimulation Enhances Stable Plasticity and Generalization of Stroke Recovery

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Abstract

Background and Purpose—

Chronic impairment of the arm and hand is a common consequence of stroke. Animal and human studies indicate that brief bursts of vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) in conjunction with rehabilitative training improve recovery of motor function after stroke. In this study, we tested whether VNS could promote generalization, long-lasting recovery, and structural plasticity in motor networks.

Methods—

Rats were trained on a fully automated, quantitative task that measures forelimb supination. On task proficiency, unilateral cortical and subcortical ischemic lesions were administered. One week after ischemic lesion, rats were randomly assigned to receive 6 weeks of rehabilitative training on the supination task with or without VNS. Rats then underwent 4 weeks of testing on a task assessing forelimb strength to test generalization of recovery. Finally, the durability of VNS benefits was tested on the supination task 2 months after the cessation of VNS. After the conclusion of behavioral testing, viral tracing was performed to assess synaptic connectivity in motor networks.

Results—

VNS enhances plasticity in corticospinal motor networks to increase synaptic connectivity to musculature of the rehabilitated forelimb. Adding VNS more than doubled the benefit of rehabilitative training, and the improvements lasted months after the end of VNS. Pairing VNS with supination training also significantly improved performance on a similar, but untrained task that emphasized volitional forelimb strength, suggesting generalization of forelimb recovery.

Conclusions—

This study provides the first evidence that VNS paired with rehabilitative training after stroke (1) doubles long-lasting recovery on a complex task involving forelimb supination, (2) doubles recovery on a simple motor task that was not paired with VNS, and (3) enhances structural plasticity in motor networks.

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