Ethical, anatomical and physiological issues in developing vestibular implants for human use.

Research paper by Jean-Philippe JP Guyot, Annietta A Gay, Maria Izabel MI Kos, Marco M Pelizzone

Indexed on: 16 Jun '12Published on: 16 Jun '12Published in: Journal of vestibular research : equilibrium & orientation


Effort towards the development of a vestibular implant for human use are being made. This paper will summarize the first important steps conducted in Geneva towards this ambitious goal. Basically, we have faced three major issues. First, an ethical issue. While it was clear that such development would require the collaboration of human volunteers, it was also clear that stimulation of the vestibular system may produce periods of significant incomfort. We know today how to minimize (and potentially eliminate) this type of incomfort. The second issue was anatomical. The anatomical topology of the vestibular system is complex, and of potentially dangerous access (i.e. facial nerve damage). We choose not to place the electrodes inside the ampullae but close the vestibular nerve branches, to avoid any opening of the inner ear and limit the risk of hearing loss. Work on cadaver heads, confirmed by acute stimulations trials on patients undergoing ear surgery under local anesthesia, demonstrated that it is possible to stimulate selectively both the posterior and lateral ampullary nerves, and elicit the expected vertical and horizontal nystagmic responses. The third issue was physiological. One of the goal of a vestibular implant will be to produce smooth eye movements to stabilize gaze direction when the head is moving. Indeed, after restoring a baseline or "rest" activity in the vestibular pathways with steady-state electrical stimulation, we demonstrated that modulation of this stimulation is producing smooth eye movements. In conclusion, humans can adapt to electrical stimulation of the vestibular system without too much discomfort. Surgical access to the posterior and lateral ampullary nerves have been developed and, electrical stimulation of the vestibular system can be used to artificially elicit smooth eye movements of different speeds and directions, once the system is in adapted state. Therefore, the major prerequisites to develop a prototype vestibular implant for human use are fulfilled.

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