NIH provides researchers with $15.25M to map vagus nerve

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded a $15.75 million contract to a team of researchers to determine how the vagus nerve tracts map to different organs in the body in the hopes of accelerating the development of electrical nerve stimulation.

The contract is within the NIH’s Stimulating Peripheral Activity Relieve Conditions (SPARC) program, which focuses on the innovation of bioelectric medicine. The contracted research team is led by Andrew Shoffstall, PhD, an assistant biomedical engineering professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and Nicole Pelot, PhD, a research director at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

The team has been tasked with detailing how the vagus nerve connects to organs within the body through the use of high-resolution imaging technology. The vagus nerve helps control the body’s innerworkings, connecting the brainstem to most organs in the torso including the heart, lungs, stomach, pancreas, and intestines. Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve has been used to treat several conditions including epilepsy, rheumatoid arthritis, and heart failure. As of now, insufficient anatomical data has prevented scientists from targeting other organs and developing new, more effective therapies with fewer side effects.

Using a series of three-dimensional imaging technologies, the three-year study will analyze multimodal, multiscale images of 100 human vagus nerves from cadaveric donors to map the vagus nerve. According to researchers, this study has the ability to enhance electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve and improve treatments for many chronic conditions.

“Over the next three years, we are hoping to make a big impact in the field of autonomic neuromodulation, which has tremendous potential to treat a number of chronic diseases,” Shoffstall said in a statement. “If we can better understand how the vagus nerve is organized, we can more rationally design devices and procedures to isolate and regulate its many pathways.”