Portable device could be used to treat Parkinson’s disease

The prototype vestibular stimulation device (Photo: Sahlgrenska Academy)

Among other things, one of the symptoms of advanced Parkinson’s disease is an impaired sense of balance. Although this typically isn't very responsive to medication, Swedish scientists at the University of Gothenburg's Sahlgrenska Academy are developing an alternative treatment – a wearable device that stimulates the patient's vestibular system.

Parkinson’s sufferers' balance problems are due to a lack of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that allows different regions of the brain to communicate with one another. In previous studies on rats, it was shown that it was possible to at least partially compensate for such a deficit, by using weak electrical "noise" to stimulate the vestibular system – this is a sensory system located in the inner ear, which the brain uses to maintain its sense of balance.

In the most recent study, the scientists experimented on 10 human test subjects, all of whom had Parkinson’s disease. They were tested in both medicated and unmedicated states, sometimes receiving actual stimulation, while at other times receiving none – the patients were unaware of which was which.

As with the rats, it was found that their balance and motor skills did indeed improve when the vestibular system was stimulated. The difference was particularly apparent when the test subjects were not taking their Parkinson’s medication.

Led by Associate Professor Filip Bergquist and working with NASA, the Sahlgrenska team has now developed a portable pocket-sized vestibular stimulation device. Plans call for it to be tested in an upcoming longer-term study, where patients will wear and use it in their homes. If those trials prove successful, the device could be available for public use within five years.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Brain Stimulation.

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