Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Effects of noninvasive vagus nerve stimulation on perseverative cognition

Can excessive worrying be reduced via stimulation of the vagus nerve?

Bart Verkuil
NWO Veni Grant NWO Veni Grant


Department of Psychology, The Ohio State University

Stress-related disorders, especially depression, anxiety and burnout, are highly prevalent and are responsible for a major proportion of health care costs and individual suffering. Worrying and maladaptive, uncontrolled and persistent processing of threatening information, called perseverative cognition, lies at the heart of the pathogenesis and maintenance of these disorders. The currently available psychological and pharmacological treatments for stress-related disorders are only moderately effective. These treatments focus primarily on specific central nervous system processes. The research from our group are testing the novel theory that perseverative cognition is critically dependent on activity of the autonomic nervous system, particularly low parasympathetic (vagus nerve) activity.

The activity of the vagus nerve is chronically low in stress-related disorders. This implies insufficient inhibition of brain regions associated with perseverative cognition. Our group and others have discovered associations between low vagus nerve activity and perseverative cognition. Only recently it has been demonstrated that the vagus nerve can be stimulated in a nonintrusive way.

In both the laboratory and daily life, we examine in people high in perseverative cognition whether auricular stimulation of the vagus nerve reduces perseverative cognition. In doing so, we hope to contribute to a new model of stress-related psychopathology, possibly leading to innovations in the treatment of stress-related disorders.

Project Leader
Bart Verkuil

Academic Staff
A.M. Burger
Dr. J.F. Brosschot
Prof. dr. A.J.W. van der Does

Key Publications

  • Burger, A. M., Verkuil, B., Fenlon, H., Thijs, L., Cools, L., Miller, H., ... & Van Diest, I. (2017). Mixed evidence for the potential of non-invasive transcutaneous vagal nerve stimulation to improve the extinction and retention of fear.Behaviour Research and Therapy, 97, 64-74.
  • Burger, A.M., Verkuil, B., Van Diest, I, Van der Does, W., Thayer, J.F.& Brosschot, J.F. (2016) The effects of transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation on conditioned fear extinction in humans.Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 132, 49-56.


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