Besides allowing us to hear, ears also house the vestibular system, a series of canals that help control balance and prevent vertigo by tracking head motion. When that system fails, it becomes difficult to walk or even see, a problem that can be mild to debilitating depending on how severe and long-lasting symptoms are. Earlier this month, however, scientists inserted the first vestibular implants into human patients, hopefully allowing external motion detectors to compensate for existing damage.
The implants were tested on three patients, two at the Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands and one at the Hôpitaux Universitaires de Genève in Switzerland. An external section holds accelerometers and gyroscopes that can detect head movement. It clips onto an inner part, which is implanted directly and uses electrodes to pass signals from the outer section to the brain. So far, it's too early to say whether it will work in humans, though it's been tested with success in animals. Still, it's a first step towards solving vestibular problems the same way hearing issues are treated now.