Sept 2019 Fox 17

A college professor who has struggled with balance issues for several decades has been selected as one of the first people in the world to receive a new experimental implant. Dr. Shawn Macauley has been living with severe balance issues after a portion of his inner ear was destroyed 23 years ago. He currently works as a professor of anatomy and physiology at Muskegon Community College, and as an on-call assistant professor at Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine. Macauley says his issues began after receiving an overdose of antibiotics all those years ago. Since then, he has had significant trouble walking, driving and focusing his eyes on anything in motion. He went through nine years of therapy following the loss. "When I move my head, the whole world moves with me and nothing is stable,” he says. After re-learning many everyday skills, Macauley got back to work at Muskegon Community College. But the effects on his balance still affect his life. “Right now my 12-year-old when he plays soccer, I don’t walk out to the middle of the field to sit on the sidelines and watch him play. I’m just not safe in an open field," he said.

Macauley recently heard about an experimental implant trial taking place at Johns Hopkins through a Facebook support group he is part of. He applied, and five weeks ago he was accepted into the trial. “They were looking for participants in a very experimental vestibular implant. Much like a cochlear implant for the hearing portion of the ear, this is an implant that goes to the balance portion of the ear," he said. Ten days ago, Macauley had the initial surgery required for the implant. His balance and reflexes were evaluated through various tests. He will undergo additional tests before and after he has the external portion of the device fitted in two weeks. “I have been told to expect this sort of 'wow' moment where for the first time my brain and my eyes will be talking to each other once again. I don’t know what that's going to feel like yet so I’m kinda excited about that.”

The inner ear measures how your head is oriented and how it’s moving. That information drives reflexes that keep you from falling and keep your vision steady. Without it, you feel wobbly and the world seems to drift whenever you move your head. For tens of thousands of people who suffer from severe loss of inner ear sensation due to gentamicin ototoxicity, genetic defects, other drug reactions, Ménière’s disease, infection or other inner ear diseases, a new experimental implant based on technology developed in the Johns Hopkins Vestibular NeuroEngineering Lab may alleviate symptoms of the balance disorder, including chronic disequilibrium and difficulty seeing while walking or driving. 


VNEL's research is broad, but is centred on creating and testing increasingly sophisticated versions of the Johns Hopkins Multichannel Vestibular Prosthesis (also known as the Vestibular Implant), which senses head motion and conveys that information to the brain by electrically stimulating the vestibular nerve. The device is very similar to a cochlear implant. (In fact, although the device being studied in this trial is dedicated entirely to the vestibular part of the ear, cochlear electrodes could be included in future versions to also stimulate the cochlea if the ear being implanted is deaf.). In animal trials, we have shown that the device effectively mimics the workings of the inner ear, partially restoring reflexes help maintain steady vision and stable posture. In late 2015, the FDA granted permission to start VNEL's clinical trial of a system based on this technology, and as of April 2016, the trial is actively recruiting, with the goal of testing whether this technology helps to restore balance and more stable vision to individuals disabled by chronic loss of vestibular sensation. 

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