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Inhibiting fear-related thoughts and defensive behaviors when they are no longer appropriate to the situation is a prerequisite for flexible and adaptive responding to changing environments. Such inhibition of defensive systems is mediated by ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), limbic basolateral amygdala (BLA), and brain stem locus-coeruleus noradrenergic system (LC-NAs). Non-invasive, transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) has shown to activate this circuit. Using a multiple-day single-cue fear conditioning and extinction paradigm, we investigated long-term effects of tVNS on inhibition of low-level amygdala modulated fear potentiated startle and cognitive risk assessments. We found that administration of tVNS during extinction training facilitated inhibition of fear potentiated startle responses and cognitive risk assessments, resulting in facilitated formation, consolidation and long-term recall of extinction memory, and prevention of the return of fear. These findings might indicate new ways to increase the efficacy of exposure-based treatments of anxiety disorders.


Christoph Szeska, Jan Richter, Julia Wendt, Mathias Weymar, Alfons O Hamm. Promoting long-term inhibition of human fear responses by non-invasive transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation during extinction training. Scientific reports. 2020 Jan 30;10(1):1529

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PMID: 32001763

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