Inner ear implant restores balance and quality of life to vertigo sufferers

February 15, 2021

Scientists at the Johns Hopkins Vestibular Neuroengineering Laboratory have modified an existing cochlear implant such that would help reduce vertigo and enable sufferers to return to independent daily living.

Bilateral vestibular hypofunction (BVH) is quite a debilitating condition, where the sufferer’s inner ear doesn’t maintain their sense of balance properly. As a result, the person gets dizzy very easily and may stumble when walking. Even when someone with BVH remains seated, their head movements alone may cause their vision to blur and jump.

Sufferers are therefore advised not to perform activities that has a high risk of falling or those in which their vertigo could endanger themselves or other people, such as driving.

Treatment typically consists of performing vestibular rehabilitation exercises alongside surgical intervention. Scientists led by otolaryngology professor Dr. Charley D. Santina, however, chose to modify an existing cochlear implant to instead stimulate the inner ear’s damaged vestibular nerve.

In someone without BVH, that nerve would fire on its own, in response to head movements. With the implant, the timing and intensity of electrical pulses are dictated by a linked motion detector, mounted on the person’s head. In this way, every time their head moved – either on its own or as part of a whole-body activity such as walking – the implant was triggered to stimulate the defective vestibular nerve.

For this study, eight BVH patients had an implant surgically placed in one ear: when assessed six months and then a year later, the patients were found to have significantly improved in four of the five measured posture and gait metrics, and in their own self-reported outcomes.

“Improvement in performance on standardised clinical tests of balance and walking has been remarkable,” said Johns Hopkins doctoral candidate Margaret Chow, who led the study along with Dr. Santina. “Even more gratifying is that our patients have been able to return to activities that enrich their daily lives, such as exercising, riding a bike, gardening or dancing at a daughter’s wedding.”

Category: Features, Technology & Devices

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