Medical Research

Transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation and heart rate variability: Analysis of parameters and targets

Kristen Sparrow • November 08, 2021

Ear acupuncture, not TAVNS but same concept

Use of Trancutaneous Auricular Vagal Nerve Stimulation TAVNS, might be helpful to augment acupuncture for many different conditions since improved parasympathetic activity can mitigate inflammation globally in the body.  I’ve been studying this with HRV in conjunction with acupuncture, which also improves parasympathetic activity.

Machetanz K, Berelidze L, Guggenberger R, Gharabaghi A. Transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation and heart rate variability: Analysis of parameters and targets. Auton Neurosci. 2021 Oct 12;236:102894. doi: 10.1016/j.autneu.2021.102894. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 34662844.


Objectives: Transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation (taVNS) modulates central and peripheral neurophysiology. Specifically, taVNS increases heart rate variability (HRV) indicating a shift in autonomic function towards parasympathetic predominance. However, knowledge on the influence of stimulation parameters and targets is scarce. We hypothesized that the location and charge per phase of taVNS influences HRV.

Materials and methods: In thirteen healthy subjects, six different stimulation targets were investigated, i.e., cymba conchae, cavum conchae, outer tragus, inner tragus, crus helicis, and fossa triangularis. At each target, 24 parameter combinations were studied: Eight different electrical charges per phase were evaluated by investigating three pulse durations and eight charge-balanced current intensities, i.e., 100 μs (0.250-2 mA in steps of 0.250 mA), 260 μs (0.096-0.769 mA in steps of 0.096 mA), and 500 μs (0.050-0.400 mA in steps of 0.050 mA). In a parallel group design, left and right taVNS were compared to each other. 30 bursts at each parameter combination were applied with a periodicity of 1 Hz. Each burst consisted of five pulses applied at 25 Hz.

Results: HRV increased in a charge-dependent way with significant differences between the right and left ear. The targets with the strongest effects were the cymba conchae and fossa triangularis, and to a lesser extent the inner tragus.

Conclusions: HRV is suitable to define taVNS parameters and targets for research and therapeutic purposes. Bursts of taVNS with a pulse duration of 100 μs and a current intensity of 2 mA are comfortable for the participants and effective in increasing HRV when applied at specific auricular locations. These findings need to be replicated in larger cohorts, and with longer stimulation and off-periods between conditions. Since results may differ in conditions with an impaired autonomic tone, future studies should also consider aged and patient populations.

Keywords: Auricular stimulation; Autonomic nervous system; Heart rate variability; Non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation; Transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation.