Implantable Device  (Source: Cochlear Ltd.)
Implant restores balance during Meniere's attacks

Researchers at the University of Washington Medical Center have developed an implantable
device that could help patients with Meniere's disease restore their balance. The device is being tested on a patient for the first time today. 

Dr. Jay Rubinstein and Dr. James Phillips, both from the University of Washington Medical Center, spent over four years developing the device for patients suffering from balance disorders due to Meniere's disease. Meniere's disease is a disorder of the inner ear that affects a person's balance and hearing, and it occurs in less than one percent of the U.S. population. The balance issues associated with this disease occur due to the inner-ear membrane rupturing and leaking endolymphatic fluid out of the vestibular system, which blurs the brain's view of balance.

Up until this point, Meniere's disease was treated with medication, change of diet, exercise and in more severe cases, surgery. But surgery for this particular disease usually means having to give up the ability to hear in the affected ear in order to stop the vertigo. 

To remedy Meniere's disease patients' problems with balance, researchers created a cochlear implant and processor that contains re-engineered software and electrode arrays. The processor is worn behind the affected ear, and when an attack occurs, the patient is to activate it. The device, which is implanted underneath the processor in a "well" made inside the temporal bone, is alerted wirelessly by the processor and sends electrical impulses through three electrodes that are located in the inner ear's canals. The electrodes are placed on the superior semicircular canal, lateral semicircular canal and posterior semicircular canal. 

"It's an override," said Phillips. "It doesn't change what's happening in the ear, but it eliminates the symptoms while replacing the function of that ear until it recovers."

The invention of this new device is based off of cochlear implants, which have a design that is already FDA-approved. While researchers at other institutions were developing brand-new prototypes, Rubinstein and Phillips jumped ahead of the game by developing a device that is already FDA-approved.

"If you started from scratch, in a circumstance like this where no one has ever treated a vestibular disorder with a device, it probably would take 10 years to develop such a device," said Rubinstein.  

Researchers are conducting the first 10-person surgical trial to test the device starting today. The first patient, a 56-year-old man from Yakima, Wash., has unilateral Meniere's disease. Researchers hope for a successful trial that could lead to the widespread use of these implants as well as gain better understanding of other balance disorders.

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