Effects of non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation on cognitive and autonomic correlates of perseverative cognition

doi: 10.1111/psyp.14250.

Online ahead of print.


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Stefanie De Smet et al.




Perseverative cognitions can provoke psychophysiological stress in the absence of an actual stressor and are considered important transdiagnostic vulnerability factors for several (mental) health issues. These stress-related cognitive processes are reflected by both cognitive (assessed by self-reports) and autonomic inflexibility (assessed by heart rate variability; HRV), with a key role attributed to the vagus nerve. Interestingly, modulation of the afferent branches of the vagus can be achieved with transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation (taVNS), a non-invasive technique that employs a low-intensity electrical current applied to the ear. In a sample of healthy individuals, we investigated the effects of taVNS of the left concha, compared to sham (earlobe) stimulation, on the cognitive and autonomic correlates of perseverative cognition following a psychosocial stress task. Interestingly, taVNS significantly reduced cognitive rigidity, reflected by reduced subjective perseverative thinking after psychosocial stress. Although there were no direct effects on autonomic correlates of perseverative cognition, individual differences in perseverative thinking after the stressor significantly affected the effects of taVNS on HRV. Specifically, more autonomic inflexibility during the stress task (i.e., reduced HRV) was associated with increases in perseverative thinking afterward for the sham condition, but not the active taVNS condition. Additional exploratory analyses revealed no significant moderation of stimulation intensity. Overall, the study findings endorse the association between perseverative cognitions and vagus nerve functioning.


cognitive rigidity; heart rate variability (HRV); perseverative cognition; stress; transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation.



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