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Champions of Vestibular Medicine

Posted by Cynthia Ryan

The Vestibular Disorders Association announces the first annual VEDA Champion of Vestibular Medicine Award initiative to increase awareness of vestibular (inner ear balance) disorders.

2014 award recipients include Daniel Merfeld, PhD, Carey Balaban, PhD, and Carol A. Foster, MD.

“Champions of Vestibular Medicine are medical professionals who have had significant impact on increasing awareness of vestibular disorders,” says Cynthia Ryan, VEDA’s executive director. “Thanks to their leadership we’re seeing new diagnostic tools and treatment protocols that help reduce diagnosis times and increase treatment effectiveness.”

“So many vestibular patients suffer for years before receiving an accurate diagnosis, if they ever get one,” says Sheelah Woodhouse, President of VEDA’s board of directors. “VEDA’s number one goal is to reduce the time it takes to diagnose a vestibular disorder. We want to shine a light on this invisible illness so that vestibular patients don’t feel so alone.”

About Vestibular Disorders

The vestibular system includes the parts of the inner ear and brain that process the sensory information involved with controlling balance and eye movements. If disease or injury damages these processing areas, vestibular disorders can result. Vestibular disorders can also result from or be worsened by genetic or environmental conditions. Many occur for unknown reasons.

One large epidemiological study estimates that as many as 35% of adults aged 40 years or older in the United States—approximately 69 million Americans—have experienced some form of vestibular dysfunction.

Champions of Vestibular Medicine

With the help of their board of medical advisors, VEDA has selected three Champions of Vestibular Medicine who will be recognized during Balance Awareness Week, which takes place September 15-21, 2014.

Dr. Daniel Merfeld, Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary

An accomplished neuroengineer and psychophysicist, Dr. Merfeld is the founding Director of the Jenks Vestibular Physiology Laboratory. Performing basic and translational vestibular research, Dr. Merfeld has shown that tilt and translation perception result from multisensory signal convergence. Much of his early research focused on understanding how the brain processes ambiguous sensory information, with a specific focus on how signals from the otolith organs in the inner ear are interpreted and processed by the nervous system. His research has shown that the nervous system uses rotational signals from canals in the inner ear to help us keep track of the relative orientation of gravity. More recently, his research showed for the first time that vestibular “perception” and “action” can use qualitatively different neural mechanisms. Recent research focuses on the measurement of thresholds, which is one way to assay vestibular “noise” so that we can learn how vestibular information is processed in the presence of noise. His most recent research focuses on understanding how the brain processes information in the presence of noise.

Dr. Carey Balaban, University of Pittsburgh

Dr. Balaban is a Professor in the Departments of Otolaryngology, Neurobiology, Communication Science & Disorders, and Bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. The primary goal of Dr. Balaban's research has been to develop a rational basis for understanding the neurobiology of the vestibular system so that new therapies for vestibular disorders can be designed. 

This goal is approached by: (1) identifying the organization of central vestibular circuits that mediate autonomic and somatic motor responses to vestibular stimulation; (2) identifying neurotransmitters and intracellular signal transduction proteins that are important in these brain circuits; (3) examining the role of these biochemical constituents in responses to challenges from toxins and mechanical (blast) injury; and (4) identifying contributions of these mechanisms to the clinical linkage among balance disorders, anxiety disorders (panic with agoraphobia) and migrainous vertigo.

Dr. Carol A. Foster, University of Colorado

Dr. Foster, Associate Professor and Director of the Balance Laboratory at the University of Colorado Hospital, specializes in the non-surgical treatment of dizziness and imbalance caused by inner ear, brain, or sensory disorders.  She has been providing treatment maneuvers for benign paroxysmal positional vertigo and working with dizzy patients at the University of Colorado since 1994. Foster is also a vestibular patient. She has Meniere’s Disease, a disorder of the inner ear that causes bouts of vertigo that can last for hours, and benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), caused when gravity-sensing particles in the inner ear accidentally enter the ear’s spinning-motion sensors. The symptoms of BPPV can be relieved by maneuvers that relocate the particles, generally done by a specially trained medical professional. With the room spinning around her, Foster developed a maneuver to get the particles out of her horizontal canal and back where they belonged. Now called the “Foster maneuver,” this half-somersault followed by a head turn and another quick move of the head gives BPPV patients a tool they can use at home.

About the Vestibular Disorders Association

For over 25 years, the Vestibular Disorders Association has provided objective information, advocacy, and a caring support network to people with vestibular disorders and the health professionals who treat them.  The organization is headquartered in Portland, Ore. For more information, call 800.837.8428 or visit vestibular.org.

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