The vagus nerve reports on the state of many of the organs in our body, including the heart, the lungs and the gut, and it relays this information to various neural control networks that unconsciously regulate internal organs. It has also been shown that artificial electric stimulation of the vagus nerve helps with recovery in animal models of stroke, tinnitus and spinal cord injury (De Ridder et al., 2014; Hays, 2016). In particular, stimulation of the vagus nerve promotes the recuperation of motor skills and, maybe, autonomic functions (such as breathing), even when the injuries took place years before the intervention. However, we do not fully understand how stimulating this single nerve can lead to such results.
Now, in eLife, Patrick Ganzer, Robert Rennaker at the University of Texas at Dallas and the Texas Biomedical Device Center, and colleagues, report that stimulating the vagus nerve of a rat with spinal injuries helps it to recover mobility of an affected limb – in this case, its front paw (Ganzer et al., 2018). The stimulation has to be applied during a short time window after the rat manages to perform a specific movement with this paw, such as grasping a lever with a specific level of strength.