Does vibrotactile stimulation of the auricular vagus nerve enhance working memory? A behavioral and physiological investigation

Gansheng Tan, Josh Adams, Kara Donovan, Phillip Demarest, Jon T. Willie, Peter Brunner, Jenna L. Gorlewicz, Eric C. Leuthardt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Background: Working memory is essential to a wide range of cognitive functions and activities. Transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation (taVNS) is a promising method to improve working memory performance. However, the feasibility and scalability of electrical stimulation are constrained by several limitations, such as auricular discomfort and inconsistent electrical contact. Objective: We aimed to develop a novel and practical method, vibrotactile taVNS, to improve working memory. Further, we investigated its effects on arousal, measured by skin conductance and pupil diameter. Method: This study included 20 healthy participants. Behavioral response, skin conductance, and eye tracking data were concurrently recorded while the participants performed N-back tasks under three conditions: vibrotactile taVNS delivered to the cymba concha, earlobe (sham control), and no stimulation (baseline control). Results: In 4-back tasks, which demand maximal working memory capacity, active vibrotactile taVNS significantly improved the performance metric d compared to the baseline but not to the sham. Moreover, we found that the reduction rate of d with increasing task difficulty was significantly smaller during vibrotactile taVNS sessions than in both baseline and sham conditions. Arousal, measured as skin conductance and pupil diameter, declined over the course of the tasks. Vibrotactile taVNS rescued this arousal decline, leading to arousal levels corresponding to optimal working memory levels. Moreover, pupil diameter and skin conductance level were higher during high-cognitive-load tasks when vibrotactile taVNS was delivered to the concha compared to baseline and sham. Conclusion: Our findings suggest that vibrotactile taVNS modulates the arousal pathway and could be a potential intervention for enhancing working memory.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)460-468
Number of pages9
JournalBrain Stimulation
Volume17
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Mar 1 2024

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