It’s about 10 o’clock in the morning. Someone staggers along the footpath. With great effort, he prevents himself from falling to the ground. Drunk at this time of day? Or is something else going on?
There are no precise numbers, says ENT specialist and vestibulologist Raymond van de Berg, but “a lot” of people in the Netherlands suffer from disturbance of equilibrium; the organs of balance inside their ears either work poorly or not at all. There is no solution for these people anywhere in the world, says Van de Berg. Not yet, because his PhD-thesis shows that it is possible. For this, he received the dissertation prize of 3,500 euro and a work of art, sponsored by the Professors fund (Hooglerarenfonds), during the foundation day celebrations last Friday.
“Many people aren’t aware of the existence of organs of balance, until they stop working,” says Van de Berg. “If they don’t work, people must consciously keep their balance. So, they need to feel with the muscles in their feet whether they are wobbling and put pressure so as not to fall. This takes a tremendous amount of energy. People with a disturbance of balance are therefore often extremely tired.”
Another important function of the organs of balance is controlling the eyes, Van de Berg explains. An example: “If you hold your finger about thirty centimetres in front of your eyes and move it from left to right, it is difficult to focus on that finger. If you do it the other way around, so hold your finger still and vigorously shake your head from side to side, your finger is in focus. That is because of your organs of balance.”
“This is why you often see such people ending up socially isolated,” Van de Berg continues. They are less mobile, but also something simple like having a conversation with a group of friends is often impossible. “When someone moves his or her head, the world starts spinning.”
Together with the University of Geneva, Van de Berg developed an artificial organ of balance that was surgically implanted in thirteen patients. He then carried out various tests. What did they show? “The eyes stabilised again, they really benefited from it.”
Van de Berg hopes that the implant will be on the market within ten years. “It still needs to be further developed. Imagine that we now have a Ford Model T, but we want to turn it into a Tesla.”