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Electronic cap helps regain lost equilibrium

December 31, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
Researchers have developed new headgear designed to keep those with chronic imbalance 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 and stuff along the wall, something to keep my balance. Otherwise, I will lose my balance, and I don't want to fall," said Amy.

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

"That's very devastating. 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," explained Dr. Joel Goebel of Washington University.

Amy 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 balance booth, signals from the cap can help Amy retrain her brain.

"When you hear the tapping, your body just automatically goes the other direction, where normally with your falling, you have to think about it first and then, you try to adjust, and sometimes it's too late at that point," Amy described.

In one study, the cap reduced falls by about 40 percent.

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

Amy 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.