Three patients recently received the first vestibular implants, an artificial version of the vestibular system that helps us keep our balance. Two received their implant at Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands while the third patient was implanted in Hôpitaux Universitaires de Genève, Switzerland. All operations were successfully completed.
The architecture of the vestibular implant is very reminiscent of that of cochlear implants: it has an external part that registers head movements and which can be secured to the head, and an internal part that connects to the nerve ends. The external component contains gyroscopes and accelerometers, and a microprocessor that digests the measurements and transmits results to the internal part which has electrodes that are connected to the vestibular nerve.
The two teams, who are working together, used a slightly different approach: in Maastricht the electrodes were attached within the semicircular channels of the vestibular system, while in Geneve the electrodes were attached outside the vestibular system. All used implants that are prototypes developed by Medel, a well-known manufacturer of cochlear implants.
The implant is being developed primarily for patients with bilateral vestibular areflexia. It is still too early to tell whether the implants work as conceived, something that will only become clear in the coming weeks after the implant has been further fine-tuned. Previous animal studies, however, were successful in restoring balance with similar implants, so results of these first implantations in humans are eagerly anticipated.