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Vagus Nerve Stimulation for the Treatment of Epilepsy

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Posted at 9:03 AM, May 15, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-15 11:03:55-04

The vagus nerve is one of 12 cranial nerves, extending from the brain stem to the abdomen. The vagus is part of the involuntary nervous system and controls unconscious bodily functions such as heart rate and digestion. Based on the location and function of the vagus nerve, it is a favorable pathway to the brain for epileptic treatment.

What is Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS)?

Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) is a treatment option for patients with epilepsy. This treatment involves implanting a small device, which is similar to a pacemaker, that sends pulses of electricity to the vagus nerve at regular intervals based on the patient’s condition and tolerance level. The patient is also able to control the stimulator with a handheld magnet for an immediate current of electricity to stop a seizure or reduce the severity of a seizure.

VNS is commonly used as an add-on therapy that goes along with anti-seizure medication or epilepsy surgery. Many people with epilepsy can control their seizures with medication, but, for those who do not respond to anti-seizure medication or cannot tolerate the side effects, VNS may be the best option. Although VNS is not a cure, many people with epilepsy see a significant decrease in the severity and frequency of seizures within the first few months after the stimulator is programed.

How is Vagus Nerve Stimulation performed?

Vagus Nerve Stimulation involves minor surgery to implant the stimulator device. A surgeon will make a small incision on the upper part of the patient’s chest and place the stimulator under the skin. A wire is then connected from the stimulator to an electrode attached to the vagus nerve. Once the stimulator and wire are implanted, the surgeon can then program the electrical pulses and adjust as needed.