Sheffield Institute for
Translational Neuroscience

01.12.2015

New Pilot Study: Vagus nerve stimulation in stroke recovery

SITraN scientists are planning the first ever trial of non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation in motor stroke recovery in collaboration with the Academic Department of Physiotherapy at Sheffield Hallam University. Hopes are that stimulation of the vagus nerve will enhance neuroplasticity and stimulate recovery of limb strength and function after stroke.

Dr Jessica Redgrave, NIHR Clinical Lecturer in Neurology and chief investigator of the study, said:

“We want to find out whether stimulating a long nerve in the body called the vagus nerve can make physiotherapy more effective in patients with arm weakness after a stroke and hopefully return function to the arm. The vagus nerve runs through the neck, near the pulse, and is involved in the functioning of several bodily systems including the brain. One branch of the vagus nerve supplies the outer ear where it can be stimulated.

Vagus nerve stimulation releases chemicals called neurotransmitters across the brain surface. In animal studies, these chemicals can help the brain re-learn how to perform activities such as controlling arm movements. Ours will be the first trial of this technique in humans after a stroke.”

Participants for the study will be recruited at the Northern General Hospital Clinical Research Facility in Sheffield from October 2015. They will receive an intensive six week programme of physiotherapy three times weekly combined with vagus nerve stimulation through the ear. The first phase of the study is to determine feasibility and acceptability of the intervention in 20 patients who had a stroke at least three months ago. A pilot trial of the technique is planned for Spring 2016. The project is a collaboration between Dr Jessica Redgrave and Professor Arshad Majid, Chair in Cerebrovascular Research, at the University of Sheffield, and physiotherapist Nicky Snowdon from Sheffield Hallam University. Dr Redgrave has received funding from the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) for patient and public involvement in the trial design.

Stroke is the most common cause of neurological disability, and at any one time 300,000 people in the UK are living with disability after a stroke. 75% of stroke survivors are left with permanent weakness of the arm which impacts on their activities of daily living such as eating, dressing and working, contributing to poor quality of life, increased care costs and increased burden on carers or family members.