To describe morphological characteristics of the brainstem nuclei in response to chronic vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) in patients with refractory epilepsy.
VNS is a treatment option for individuals with medically refractory epilepsy. While treatment with VNS may achieve up to 50% seizure reduction and is protective against sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP), its mechanism of action is not fully understood. Long-term structural and cellular changes in response to VNS have rarely been addressed in humans.
Four autopsy cases with history of chronic epilepsy treated with VNS (VNS+) and 4 age- and sex-matched chronic epilepsy-related death cases without VNS (VNS-) were included. Detailed clinical and postmortem data were obtained. Serial horizontal sections of the brainstem were prepared and stained with hematoxylin, eosin, and luxol fast blue (HE/LFB). Three regions of interest (ROIs) were delineated, including nucleus tractus solitarius (NTS), locus coeruleus (LC), and the rostral pontine group of raphe nuclei (rRN). Immunohistochemistry studies were performed using antibodies to GFAP, NeuN, HLA-DR, and IBA-1. Immunolabeling index was analyzed.
Three of the 4 VNS+ patients and all 4 control (VNS-) patients died of SUDEP. There was no laterality difference in the NeuN, GFAP, HLA-DR and IBA-1 expression in LC and NTS of VNS+ patients. Similarly, there was no difference in the rRN, LC, and NTS between the VNS+ and VNS- groups.
This study represents the first histopathological study of the long-term effects of VNS therapy in the human brain. There was no difference observed in the neuronal cell number, degree of astrocytosis, and neuroinflammation in the main brainstem vagal afferent nuclei after prolonged VNS treatment in patients with refractory epilepsy.

Copyright © 2021 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.