The discovery of a gene responsible for maintaining balance in mice could lead to a therapy to restore loss of balance to the elderly and to astronauts who have experienced zero gravity, writes Natasha Gilbert.
According to a study by US and Brazilian researchers, this could help cut the number of elderly people who suffer fall-related injuries. In the UK, about 8 per cent of those 70 years and over visit accident and emergency departments because of falls.
"With this gene, we can begin to understand the mechanisms that allow the body to sense gravity and maintain balance," said David Ornitz of the molecular biology and pharmacology department at Washington University school of medicine.
In the study, to be published in the April issue of the journal Human Molecular Genetics, Professor Ornitz's team, together with researchers from the University of Sio Paulo's department of immunology, genetically analysed two strains of mice known to have impaired balance. The mice walk with their heads tilted and have trouble orienting in water but have no hearing problems.
They discovered that the mice had a mutation in a gene known as Otop1, which they believe codes for a cluster of gravity-detecting particles called otoconia. These particles rest on top of hair cells lining the inner ear - the part responsible for determining balance.
Previous studies suggest that otoconia progressively degrade through normal ageing, which leads 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.
"It is possible that this is one of the genes that shuts down after development," Professor Ornitz said. "If we can find a way to reactivate this gene, we may be able to help otoconia regenerate and treat balance disorders."
Gordon Lishman, director general of Age Concern England, told The THES:
"Falls among older people can be prevented by carrying out safety checks in homes and treating osteoporosis. But measures to tackle other risk factors such as balance also need to be taken."