What Are the Pros and Cons of Vagus Nerve Stimulation for Depression?

M.R. Anglin

One of the positive aspects for using vagus nerve stimulation for depression is that this treatment could treat severe and otherwise treatment resistant forms of depression. It has a low relapse rate, and it can improve a patient’s energy, sleep, and mood. In addition, it does not have the same side effects as other depression treatments. Vagus nerve stimulation for depression does, however, have its own side effects that should be considered carefully. Further, it requires surgery.

A diagram showing the vagus nerve.
A diagram showing the vagus nerve.

In order for vagus nerve stimulation for depression to work, a doctor has to implant a machine, called a pulse generator, into the chest area and attach wires to one of the vagus nerves. The generator, the size of a pocket watch, sends electrical impulses to the nerve which in turn stimulate areas in the brain that affect mood and other functions. The implantation of the generator leads to one of the negative aspects of this treatment: surgery. Patients have to undergo general or local anesthesia while the device is being implanted. In addition, there may be complications from surgery, and the pulse generator could malfunction or move which can require another surgery to fix.

Vagus nerve stimulation can treat severe and otherwise treatment resistant forms of depression.
Vagus nerve stimulation can treat severe and otherwise treatment resistant forms of depression.

Once inside the body, the pulse generator sends a 30 second electrical impulse to the nerve every five minutes. While experts do not know why these impulses treat depression, initial studies seem to indicate that they do. Vagus nerve stimulation for depression can improve a person’s mood and lifestyle without causing sexual dysfunction, weight gain, or insomnia like some medications can. In addition, it will not cause memory loss. Like many other treatments, vagus nerve stimulation can carry some side effects, however.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved vagus nerve stimulation to treat certain types of depression.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved vagus nerve stimulation to treat certain types of depression.

During the 30 second impulse a person may feel tingling of the skin. Stimulating the vagus nerve in this way may also cause upset stomach or vomiting. In addition, it can also cause changes in the voice, hoarseness, or sore throat. Patients may also experience problems swallowing, and may have neck pain and breathing problems during the impulses. If the side effects are negatively affecting activities, the impulse generator can be switched off by placing a magnet over the area where the generator has been implanted.

A tendency toward depression may be passed down from parent to child.
A tendency toward depression may be passed down from parent to child.

The long term side effects for vagus nerve stimulation for depression have not yet been experienced. As this treatment is studied further, more will be learned about its benefits and risks. As such, it is important for a patient to understand that this treatment should be undertaken with a proper understanding of the risks and benefits. In fact, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the device may worsen depression in some cases. The FDA has approved this treatment, however, for treating certain types of depression, though it may only be used after at least four medical treatments for depression have been attempted.

Vagus nerve stimulation may only be used after at least four other depression medical treatments have been attempted.
Vagus nerve stimulation may only be used after at least four other depression medical treatments have been attempted.
The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve.
The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve.
The risk of depression increases in women with diabetes.
The risk of depression increases in women with diabetes.

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