How well does vagus nerve stimulation work in children?

"The problem with all of the epilepsy treatments is that they are studied in adults first, and kids are not adults. We need to see if the same things work—sometimes they work better, sometimes they don't," says Dr. Eric Geller of St. Barnabas Epilepsy Center in New Jersey. "In reality, all medications work as well in children as they do in adults. The dosing needs to be different, and the side effects may be different. We need to assess them in kids and see how it is. It's the same thing for vagus nerve stimulation."

An early assessment of how well vagus nerve stimulation would work for children was performed in 1995 at the Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri.

  • For 2 to 14 months, these doctors followed the progress of 12 children with epilepsy that couldn't be controlled by seizure medicines or surgery. They looked at each child's overall status, the number of seizures, and the amount of medication the child took before and after the device was implanted.
  • The results? Encouraging. For 5 of the 12 patients, the number of monthly seizures was reduced by more than 90%. (A later report from the same hospital showed this result in 6 of 19 patients.)
  • The general well-being of many children seemed to improve, and 4 of the 12 took fewer seizure medicines. Side effects were minimal.
  • The doctors concluded that vagus nerve stimulation does not present problems for children with hard-to-control epilepsy, and it may have a role in their medical management.
  • However, they were unable to determine what specific kinds of epilepsy or seizures were helped most, so they called for more research.

It's being done more and more

Numerous studies have followed the one from 1995.

  • In December 2001, doctors from the Children's Hospital in Denver, Colorado, reported on the results of vagus nerve stimulation in 19 children (ages 4 to 10 years) with generalized epilepsies. These were all the children under 12 who had a device implanted at that hospital during the 3 years the study was conducted. 
  • VNS is now  considered an acceptable option for children with epilepsy who are not responding to medication.
Authored by: Joseph I. Sirven, MD on 8/2013
Reviewed by: Joseph I. Sirven, MD | Patricia O. Shafer, RN, MN on 3/2014