Avoiding off-target effects in electrical stimulation of the cervical vagus nerve - neuroanatomical tracing techniques to study fascicular anatomy of the vagus nerve


Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a promising therapy for treatment of various conditions that are resistant to standard medication, such as heart failure, epilepsy, and depression. The vagus nerve is a complex nerve providing afferent and efferent innervation of the pharynx, larynx, heart, tracheobronchial tree and lungs, oesophagus, stomach, liver, pancreas, small intestine and proximal colon. It is therefore a prime target for intervention for VNS. Surprisingly, the fascicular organisation of the vagus nerve at the cervical level is still not well understood. This, along with the current stimulation techniques, results in the entire nerve being stimulated, which leads to unwanted off-target effects. Neuronal tracing is a promising method to delineate the organ-specific innervation by the vagus nerve, thereby providing valuable insight into the fascicular anatomy. In this review we discuss the current knowledge of vagus nerve anatomy and neuronal tracers used for mapping of its organ-specific projections in various species. Efferent vagal projections are a chain of two neurones (pre- and postganglionic), while afferent projections consist of only one pseudounipolar neurone with one branch terminating in the target organ/tissue directly and another in the brainstem. It would be feasible to retrogradely trace the afferent fibres from their respective visceral targets and identify them at the cervical level using non-transsynaptic neuronal tracers. Using this to create a map of the functional anatomical organisation of the vagus nerve will enable selective VNS ultimately allowing for the avoidance of the off-target effects and improving overall efficacy.

Journal of Neuroscience Methods 325