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Rare disorder gives illusion of being in motion long after traveling

October 12, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Many of us know what motion sickness feels like, but imagine having that feeling of nausea long after you've been on a plane or stepped off a boat.

UCLA researchers are studying an underrecognized disorder, called Mal de Debarquement Syndrome, that affects healthy people after travel. It's often misdiagnosed as an inner ear problem or depression.

Diane Bruning, 61, suffers from MdDS. In July 2010, Bruning got off a train, but her brain kept thinking she was still on it.

"It's still sending signals to my limps, saying you're on a moving object so you need to counter this," she said.

Even when she's in bed, she feels like she's on a cruise ship.

"I do have days though that I feel like I'm going to fall," said Bruning.

Dr. Yoon-Hee Cha with UCLA's Department of Neurology has been studying patients like Bruning with functional neuroimaging and PET scanning.

"There is an area of the brain that processes spatial information, it's in a very deep part of the brain and it was hypermetabolic," said Dr. Cha.

She says people with MdDS simply cannot adapt when the environment changes. It often occurs in healthy people 40 to 60 years old. Seventy-five percent are women.

"There's definitely a hormonal connection," said Dr. Cha.

Half the people with MdDS will get it like Bruning did, after getting off a plane or a train. The other half will get it spontaneously and usually after a period of extreme stress.

"And everyone is at risk for that. So we see people who have lost their jobs and who can't feed their families and have had health problems," said Dr. Cha.

People who can't find relief often go on to have memory and vision problems, chronic fatigue and severe headaches. Bruning says after she gets TMS her symptoms go away. Dr. Cha says the longer she can help Bruning feel like she's standing on solid ground, the closer she may be to a cure.

"That it can sort of break that cycle and that it will basically kind of learn to be back into a normal state," she said.

Dr. Cha is experimenting with back-to-back TMS treatments along with locating different areas of the brain to stimulate. Bruning's symptoms have completely disappeared. Dr. Cha says the hope is one day, a device be developed to use safely at home.

The MdDS Balance Foundation has a website, www.mddsfoundation.org, where people can find doctors in their area who are familiar with MdDS, complete surveys, and chat with other people who have MdDS. People can also contact the Neurology clinic at UCLA at (310) 794-1195 to meet with a neurotologist.

For more information about MdDS, Dr. Cha answers the most commonly asked questions here.

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