Transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation (taVNS) is a neurostimulatory technique hypothesised to enhance central noradrenaline. Currently, there is scarce evidence in support of a noradrenergic mechanism of taVNS and limited knowledge on its stimulation parameters (i.e., intensity and pulse width). Therefore, the present study aimed to test whether taVNS enhances pupil dilation, a noradrenergic biomarker, as a function of stimulation parameters. Forty-nine participants received sham (i.e., left ear earlobe) and taVNS (i.e., left ear cymba concha) stimulation in two separate sessions, in a counterbalanced order. We administered short bursts (5s) of seven stimulation settings varying as a function of pulse width and intensity and measured pupil size in parallel. Each stimulation setting was administered sixteen times in separate blocks. We expected short bursts of stimulation to elicit phasic noradrenergic activity as indexed by event-related pupil dilation and event-related temporal derivative. We hypothesised higher stimulation settings, quantified as the total charge per pulse (pulse width x intensity), to drive greater event-related pupil dilation and temporal derivative in the taVNS compared to sham condition. Specifically, we expected stimulation settings in the taVNS condition to be associated with a linear increase in event-related pupil dilation and temporal derivative. We found stimulation settings to linearly increase both pupil measures. In line with our hypothesis, the observed dose-dependent effect was stronger in the taVNS condition. We also found taVNS to elicit more intense and unpleasant sensations than sham stimulation. These results support the hypothesis of a noradrenergic mechanism of taVNS. However, future studies should disentangle whether stimulation elicited sensations mediate the effect of taVNS on evoked pupil dilation.
Noradrenaline; Norepinephrine; Pupil dilation; Stimulation parameters; taVNS.