WRIISC research highlight: Veterans with Gulf War Illness/reduced balance function can improve
One area that has not been thoroughly researched in Gulf War Veterans is the function of the vestibular system (organs located in your inner ears). The vestibular system provides us with information about spatial orientation and balance when moving and about where we are relative to gravity. This is very important because we use this information every day to ensure we are able to stand up without falling as well as move around. Vestibular function is critical for balance and has also been shown to affect memory and blood flow in the brain.
A recent study by Dr. Jorge Serrador and his research team at the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center (WRIISC) in East Orange, NJ, found that Veterans with Gulf War illness (GWI) have reduced vestibular function in comparison to civilians. Similarly, compared to civilians, Veterans with GWI swayed (lost balance) more when standing, indicating poor balance.
To examine if vestibular function and balance could be improved in Veterans with GWI, the team developed a novel electrical stimulator that, unlike traditional neurostimulators, provides very low levels of a type of random electrical signal that cannot be felt by the patient. The electric stimulator is clipped to the earlobe and attached to a standard index card-sized box. Using this specialized stimulation, the WRIISC research team was able to reduce swaying, improving the balance of 100 percent of the Veterans with GWI in the study.
Though further research is necessary, the results highlight two findings: 1) Reduced vestibular function and poor balance may be widespread in Veterans with GWI; 2) Low level electrical stimulation that cannot be felt by the patient appears to improve balance in 100 percent of the Veterans studied.
This study suggests that vestibular function should be assessed in GWI. Since vestibular function has been implicated in memory and the regulation of blood flow in the brain, treatment that targets this system may provide a novel therapeutic intervention for GWI. With these findings, Dr. Serrador and his research team plan to examine if using a portable version of the stimulator improves balance and helps alleviate or lessen the severity of other symptoms found in GWI.