Gene that contributes to sense of balance

RESEARCHERS HAVE discovered a gene that appears to be critical for maintaining a healthy sense of balance in mice.

The study, led by a team at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, appeared in the journal Human Molecular Genetics.

"Loss of balance is a significant problem in the elderly because it can lead to dangerous falls and injuries," says David M. Ornitz, professor of molecular biology and pharmacology at the School of Medicine. "Loss of balance also is a problem for astronauts following exposure to zero gravity. ."Balance is determined and regulated by the vestibular system, which is housed in the inner ear. To detect gravity, a cluster of particles called otoconia rests atop hair cells lining the inner ear. Like a water buoy guided by the movement of waves, otoconia are displaced as the body moves.

As otoconia move, they shift the hair cells, which triggers the cells to send messages to the brain.

Studies suggest that otoconia are only produced during development, and that they progressively degrade throughout life.

Scientists believe otoconia erode during normal aging, which can lead to balance disorders.

But little is understood about how otoconia develop, and whether it may be possible to stimulate the production or regeneration of these particles.