Auricular Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation Specifically Enhances Working Memory Gate Closing Mechanism: A System Neurophysiological Study

Research output: Contribution to journalResearch articleContributedpeer-review



Everyday tasks and goal-directed behavior involve the maintenance and continuous updating of information in working memory (WM). WM gating reflects switches between these two core states. Neurobiological considerations suggest that the catecholaminergic and the GABAergic are likely involved in these dynamics. Both of these neurotransmitter systems likely underlie the effects to auricular transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (atVNS). We examine the effects of atVNS on WM gating dynamics and their underlying neurophysiological and neurobiological processes in a randomized crossover study design in healthy humans of both sexes. We show that atVNS specifically modulates WM gate closing and thus specifically modulates neural mechanisms enabling the maintenance of information in WM. WM gate opening processes were not affected. atVNS modulates WM gate closing processes through the modulation of EEG alpha band activity. This was the case for clusters of activity in the EEG signal referring to stimulus information, motor response information, and fractions of information carrying stimulus-response mapping rules during WM gate closing. EEG-beamforming shows that modulations of activity in fronto-polar, orbital, and inferior parietal regions are associated with these effects. The data suggest that these effects are not because of modulations of the catecholaminergic (noradrenaline) system as indicated by lack of modulatory effects in pupil diameter dynamics, in the inter-relation of EEG and pupil diameter dynamics and saliva markers of noradrenaline activity. Considering other findings, it appears that a central effect of atVNS during cognitive processing refers to the stabilization of information in neural circuits, putatively mediated via the GABAergic system.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Goal-directed behavior depends on how well information in short-term memory can be flexibly updated but also on how well it can be shielded from distraction. These two functions were guarded by a working memory gate. We show how an increasingly popular brain stimulation techniques specifically enhances the ability to close the working memory gate to shield information from distraction. We show what physiological and anatomic aspects underlie these effects.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4709-4724
Number of pages16
JournalThe Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience
Issue number25
Publication statusPublished - 21 Jun 2023

External IDs

PubMedCentral PMC10286950
Scopus 85163922338
ORCID /0000-0002-9069-7803/work/146644463
ORCID /0000-0002-2989-9561/work/146788797



  • Male, Female, Humans, Memory, Short-Term/physiology, Vagus Nerve Stimulation, Cross-Over Studies, Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation, Norepinephrine