GPs and other doctors will be equipped with a new, online information system to help diagnose and treat a range of balance disorders, thanks to €3.5m European Union funding for EMBalance. This three-year project will be coordinated by UCL and involve researchers from ten different partners, spread across seven European countries.
Balance disorders (e.g. vertigo, Ménière's Disease, migraine-related dizziness etc.) affect more than a third of the UK population at some point in their lives and falls are the most common cause of accidental death in those aged 75+. However, diagnosis of balance disorders is rarely straightforward and can often take months, or even years.
The human balance control system is incredibly complex, relying on the brain to synthesise a range of information from the eyes, the joints/muscles, and the vestibular system (motion, equilibrium, spatial orientation). This complexity, coupled with the fact that there are few balance disorder specialists in the primary and secondary healthcare systems, means that receiving a correct diagnosis can be a long, drawn-out process for patients.
"Balance is crucial for unimpaired mobility," says Dr Doris-Eva Bamiou, primary investigator for the EMBalance project at the UCL Ear Institute. "When balance deteriorates it hampers people's independence and can often lead to falls and injuries, especially in the elderly.
"In addition to the serious risk of injury, there is also a large socioeconomic cost associated with these conditions," continues Dr Bamiou. "The majority of people with chronic balance disorders experience a range of psychological disorders. Older adults in particular may become isolated, while a quarter of working age adults affected by balance disorders will take time off work while they wait to receive the correct diagnosis and treatment.
"Through EMBalance we aim to produce a computer-based information system that will support clinical decision-making. This should enable accurate and early diagnosis of balance disorders and ensure patients receive a prompt and efficient treatment plan."
Over the next sixteen months the EMBalance team will produce a database of balance-related information which will be combined with computerised balance models to produce a patient-specific tool capable of accurately simulating an individual's complex physiological balance system.
Clinical trials are expected to begin in Spring 2015 at University College London Hospitals and at clinical sites in Belgium, Germany and Greece. The trials will assess the effectiveness of the EMBalance tool in producing the correct diagnosis and management plan by non-experts.
At the end of the three year project, the EMBalance system will be made available over the internet and will equip non-experts with a powerful diagnostic tool to help identify and treat balance disorders.