The sixth sense

September 04, 2014

A serious eye or ear defect can turn someone’s life upside down but what about a defective balance organ? That can disrupt someone’s life severely but is very difficult to diagnose. People whose balance organ does not work properly are so badly disabled that they are quite unable to live their lives normally. Problems with the balance organ, partly due to old age, affect one in five Dutch people. But the subject is not exactly what you would call “sexy”, even in the medical world. Professor Herman Kingma, clinical physicist and vestibulologist at the Maastricht UMC+, is specialised in vestibular disorders. He developed an artificial balance organ that, in September 2012, was implanted in a patient at the Maastricht university teaching hospital – a world first.

The device that was implanted is basically a hearing aid that is already connected to the auditory nerve of deaf people on a large scale. Kingma and his colleagues converted this. The sensor is screwed firmly to the skull of the patient and three thin electrodes are implanted in the inner ear. The sensor senses the position of the patient in relation to gravity. Signals are transmitted to the implant that sends pulses to the balance nerve. The brain uses this information to stimulate the eye muscles and to keep the eye stable. The subtle interplay between the balance organ and the eye muscles stabilises the image.