We report striking and unanticipated improvements in maladaptive behaviours in Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS) during a trial of vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) initially designed to investigate effects on the overeating behaviour. PWS is a genetically determined neurodevelopmental disorder associated with mild-moderate intellectual disability (ID) and social and behavioural difficulties, alongside a characteristic and severe hyperphagia.
Three individuals with PWS underwent surgery to implant the VNS device. VNS was switched on 3 months post-implantation, with an initial 0.25 mA output current incrementally increased to a maximum of 1.5 mA as tolerated by each individual. Participants were followed up monthly.
Vagal nerve stimulation in these individuals with PWS, within the stimulation parameters used here, was safe and acceptable. However, changes in eating behaviour were equivocal. Intriguingly, unanticipated, although consistent, beneficial effects were reported by two participants and their carers in maladaptive behaviour, temperament and social functioning. These improvements and associated effects on food-seeking behaviour, but not weight, indicate that VNS may have potential as a novel treatment for such behaviours.
We propose that these changes are mediated through afferent and efferent vagal projections and their effects on specific neural networks and functioning of the autonomic nervous system and provide new insights into the mechanisms that underpin what are serious and common problems affecting people with IDs more generally.