Non-invasive peripheral nerve stimulation selectively enhances speech category learning in adults
Adults struggle to learn non-native speech contrasts even after years of exposure. While laboratory-based training approaches yield learning, the optimal training conditions for maximizing speech learning in adulthood are currently unknown. Vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to prime adult sensory-perceptual systems towards plasticity in animal models. Precise temporal pairing with auditory stimuli can enhance auditory cortical representations with a high degree of specificity. Here, we examined whether sub-perceptual threshold transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS), paired with non-native speech sounds, enhances speech category learning in adults. Twenty-four native English-speakers were trained to identify non-native Mandarin tone categories. Across two groups, tVNS was paired with the tone categories that were easier- or harder-to-learn. A control group received no stimulation but followed an identical thresholding procedure as the intervention groups. We found that tVNS robustly enhanced speech category learning and retention of correct stimulus-response associations, but only when stimulation was paired with the easier-to-learn categories. This effect emerged rapidly, generalized to new exemplars, and was qualitatively different from the normal individual variability observed in hundreds of learners who have performed in the same task without stimulation. Electroencephalography recorded before and after training indicated no evidence of tVNS-induced changes in the sensory representation of auditory stimuli. These results suggest that paired-tVNS induces a temporally precise neuromodulatory signal that selectively enhances the perception and memory consolidation of perceptually salient categories.