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taVNS modulates performance but not pupil (McHaney et al., 2023)

posted on 2023-08-31, 22:45 authored by Jacie R McHaney, William L. Schuerman, Matthew K. Leonard, Bharath Chandrasekaran

Purpose: Subthreshold transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation (taVNS) synchronized with behavioral training can selectively enhance nonnative speech category learning in adults. Prior work has demonstrated that behavioral performance increases when taVNS is paired with easier-to-learn Mandarin tone categories in native English listeners, relative to when taVNS is paired with harder-to-learn Mandarin tone categories or without taVNS. Mechanistically, this temporally precise plasticity has been attributed to noradrenergic modulation. However, prior work did not specifically utilize methodologies that indexed noradrenergic modulation and, therefore, was unable to explicitly test this hypothesis. Our goal for this study was to use pupillometry to gain mechanistic insights into taVNS behavioral effects.

Method: Thirty-eight participants learned to categorize Mandarin tones while pupillometry was recorded. In a double-blinded design, participants were divided into two taVNS groups that, as in the prior study, differed according to whether taVNS was paired with easier-to-learn tones or harder-to-learn tones. Learning performance and pupillary responses were measured using linear mixed-effects models.

Results: We found that taVNS did not have any tone-specific or group behavioral or pupillary effects. However, in an exploratory analysis, we observed that taVNS did lead to faster rates of learning on trials paired with stimulation, particularly for those who were stimulated at lower amplitudes.

Conclusions: Our results suggest that pupillary responses may not be a reliable marker of locus coeruleus–norepinephrine system activity in humans. However, future research should systematically examine the effects of stimulation amplitude on both behavior and pupillary responses.

Supplemental Material S1. Pre‐registered analyses including a no‐taVNS control group.

Supplemental Material S2. Accuracy comparison with McHaney et al., 2021.

McHaney, J. R., Schuerman, W. L., Leonard, M. K., & Chandrasekaran, B. (2023). Transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation modulates performance but not pupil size during nonnative speech category learning. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 66(10), 3825–3843.


This research was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as part of the Targeted Neuroplasticity Program (Contract No. N66001-17-2-4008) and the National Institutes of Health Grant T32-DC011499, awarded to K. Kandler and B. Yates (trainee: J. R. McHaney).


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