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Wednesday, 30 May, 2001, 18:00 GMT 19:00 UK
Electric shocks 'improve balance'
tightropewalker
Balancing: Could an electric shock help?
Delivering tiny electric charges behind the ears can have remarkable effects on the part of the brain that stops you falling over.

Normally the brain uses a complex system of monitoring systems and nerve impulses to work out which way is up.

In some people, however, this goes askew, affecting the sense of balance and leading to falls or nausea.

A team from Boston University in the US believes it has found a way of reproducing these nerve signals from an external source.

Their technique, called "galvanic vestibular stimulation", reported in New Scientist magazine, involves applying a tiny, painless electric current behind each ear.

By reducing one and increasing another, the brain is conned into thinking that the position of the head has changed, and automatically makes physical adjustments to counter it.

Moving process

The scientist leading the project, Dr Jim Collins, told the magazine: "We're causing a shift in the perception of what is vertical.

"It feels as though you have moved."

The team is now trying to improve the balance of health volunteers, counteracting the effect of a swaying platform.

He believes that it could even be built into prosthetic limbs to help people wearing them make the necessary adjustments in balance.

In addition, it is hoped that the system could help alleviate the feelings of "motion sickness" felt by travellers on ships and planes.

In theory, it could even be used in virtual reality machines to help users enjoy an even more intense experience.

"You want the person to experience the full environment," said Collins.

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