Transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation (ta-VNS) is a new non-invasive technique developed as treatment option for drug resistant epilepsy. A few studies have been carried out showing that the efficacy and tolerability of ta-VNS is comparable with traditional implanted VNS but the feasibility of the therapy has been poorly described. This study aimed to explore potential clinical benefits of ta-VNS and to evaluate adaptation, compliance, as well as the usability of the device from a service design perspective.
A prospective, multicenter, clinical, investigator-initiated trial was conducted using the NEMOS® ta-VNS device. After eight weeks baseline, all subjects started ta-VNS with individually adjusted currents for four hours per day for six-months (first endpoint) followed by optional 12 months follow-up (second endpoint). The primary outcome was six months retention rate of ta-VNS therapy. Secondary outcomes included the user retention rate at 12 months follow-up, compliance, changes in scores of psychometric measures. For the study of feasibility, a service design questionnaire on medical devices used in the home was developed.
In total 37 subjects had been included in the study after 45 months where the study was prematurely terminated due to recruitment problems and due to a high drop-out rate. Twenty-two subjects (59 %) completed the first six months of the study and in total six subjects (16 %) completed the following 12 months follow-up. The reasons for discontinuation were a mixture of medical and practical issues of which the majority were related to a combination of both. Those, who managed to continue to use ta-VNS throughout the study, gave generally higher scores for the device usability and compatibility with lifestyle. The study turned out to be inadequately powered to reach any conclusion in terms of the clinical benefits of ta-VNS but present an example of difficulties that are encountered in conducting high-quality studies with digital devices.
The feasibility of ta-VNS therapy showed to be relatively modest which is most likely due to practical usability issues and lifestyle fits. The results of this study stress the importance of generating data based on patients experiences at an early stage during the development phase and when designing clinical trials on medical devices that depend on patient’s active participation and motivation.