2021 Innovator Award

Pairing tVNS and exposure and response prevention to improve symptoms of OCD

John Williamson, PhD; Carol Mathews, MD

University of Florida (Gainesville, FL)

Award Amount: $300,000

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with exposure and response prevention (ERP) is a safe, effective, and proven treatment for OCD. Some researchers believe that ERP’s efficacy lies behind helping patients “un-learn” the connection between compulsive behaviors and feelings of relief from anxiety or fear. If this process, called “fear extinction learning,” could be accelerated or enhanced during therapy, it may bring faster improvement in symptoms and relief to people with OCD.

Previous research has suggested that stimulating the vagus nerve – the nerve that connects the brain to the heart, lungs, and gut – could help enhance fear extinction learning. Advances in technology have made it possible to stimulate the vagus nerve through the skin without incisions, and with only limited discomfort to patients, making it possible for patients to receive vagus nerve stimulation and therapies like ERP at the same time. Based on their promising results in research about vagus nerve stimulation in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this team aims to study vagus nerve stimulation in OCD. The results may lead to a better understanding of how ERP works to benefit patients, as well as create a new option to enhance its effectiveness.