Balance Cap

December 18, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
Whether you're riding a bike or just walking down the street, balance is something you probably take for granted, but 2 million people in the U.S. live with chronic imbalance that interferes with their daily lives and puts them at risk for falls and injury. Researchers developed new headgear designed to keep these patients on an even keel.Amy Bianco can't get up a stairway without dragging her arm along the wall.

"I have to make sure I'm either holding on to a hand rail, or I'll slide my elbow along the wall, something to keep my balance," Bianco told Ivanhoe. "Otherwise, I will lose my balance. I don't want to fall."

Doctors aren't sure when or how, but Bianco lost her vestibular system, the inner ear mechanism that helps her balance.

"That's very devastating," Joel A. Goebel, M.D., F.A.C.S., professor of otolaryngology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo., told Ivanhoe. "People have lost that inner sense of balance, and so now they're very reliant on their eyesight, and they're very reliant on the touch on their feet."

Bianco was one of the test patients for a new electronic "cap."

The cap sends tapping signals to help her compensate for the equilibrium she's lost. Practicing in a special balance booth, signals from the cap can help Bianco retrain her brain. In one study, the cap reduced falls by about 40 percent.

"They wear it, they practice with it, and even ... when it's off, their balance is better," Dr. Goebel said.

Bianco won't let her problem slow her down -- she's fighting to keep her balance, one step at a time.

Researchers are working on a more compact version of the balance cap. They say a device incorporated into a hat or scarf could be available within two years.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT: Judy Martin Media Relations Washington University School of Medicine