An Artificial Inner Ear To Eliminate Vertigo – 2010 –

Charles C. Della Santina has unusual patients:
disoriented chinchillas. As with many of the 4.5 million people who suffer from chronic
imbalance, a damaged ear makes it nearly impossible for the animals to stand upright. This makes
them perfect test subjects for a prosthetic inner ear. The device, developed by Della Santina, an
ear, nose and throat doctor at Johns Hopkins University, connects small gyroscopes and
accelerometers to the brain to do the job of the inner ear. Usually when you move your head, fluid in
three inner-ear canals swishes around, bending the hairlike cells that line the canals. The
cells tell your brain which direction they’re flexing, which your brain uses to determine
the direction you moved. Your brain then prevents you from getting dizzy and falling over, by,
say, keeping your eyes focused straight ahead while you’re jogging. People whose cells have
been damaged by head injuries, aging or certain strong antibiotics, however, can end up with
chronic imbalance, a condition that affects 250,000 Americans. Della Santina has shown that his externally
worn prototype works when wired to chinchillas with dead inner-ear-hair cells. The prosthetic
interprets head motion the way a Nintendo Wiimote does and sends that data to the brain.
Before his intervention, the chinchillas ran in circles trying to find their balance, but
right after, they started scurrying around almost like normal. And he’s now seeing good
results with monkeys, too. Della Santina is shrinking the sensors by 20 percent so that
they can fit under the skin and hopes to start clinical trials as soon as 2013. People are
already lining up to volunteer. “I can’t work anymore, and I had to sell my beach house,”
says a patient, Richard Gannon. “I used to stumble on the sand and people would pull
their kids away, thinking I was drunk. I can’t wait to get the implant.”

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