VNS is like a ‘pacemaker for the brain’

Vagus nerve stimulation, or VNS, is a treatment for people who have seizures that are not well-controlled by medication and other therapies. The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that runs from the head through the neck and down to the chest. It is the largest nerve in the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary functions such as breathing and heart rate. VNS is often called a “pacemaker for the brain” because it involves controlling electrical impulses to the brain, thus controlling the intensity and frequency of seizures.

How VNS works

VNS begins with a minor surgical procedure to implant a battery about the size of a silver dollar near your left collarbone or elsewhere on the left side of your head. A wire extends from the device and wraps around the vagus nerve itself. When you wave a special magnet (either worn on the wrist or carried at the waist) over the implant, an electrical impulse is sent through the nerve to the brain stem. The signal is on for 30 seconds and then off for five minutes. This electrical transmission is thought to slow down or prevent neurotransmitter activity that leads to seizure.

The surgery is performed under general anesthesia (you are asleep during the procedure) and it takes about an hour.

Side effects and results of vagus nerve stimulation

As with any treatment, results vary from person to person. VNS, however, has been shown to reduce frequency and intensity of seizures in approximately 50 percent of people. Some side effects include (temporary) hoarseness, coughing, or difficulty speaking.

Research is still being conducted using VNS as a therapy for other types of conditions, including treatment-resistant depression.

Talk to your doctor to learn more about vagus nerve stimulation and how it can help with seizures.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.