APU Professor and Students Help Develop Device for Gulf War Veterans

by Micaela Ricaforte '20

A neuroscience professor and a team of students from Azusa Pacific University collaborated with scientists from universities around the world to develop a device that improves balance problems in Gulf War veterans. Many veterans who served in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield frequently experience unexplained medical symptoms such as chronic dizziness, fatigue, headaches, respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, fibromyalgia, and memory loss. This is known as Gulf War illness. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported that the disorder affects about 25 percent of the 700,000 total Gulf War veterans.

A team of scientists at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School pioneered the research and the development of the device. Scientists from Johns Hopkins University and Western Sydney University in Australia were also involved. The study compared the vestibular function of 60 Gulf War veterans to 36 civilians of the same age and sex. The results found poor balance and decreased vestibular function present among veterans with Gulf War Illness.

APU psychology associate professor Scott Wood, Ph.D., specializes is neuroscience with emphasis on sensory systems physiology and sensorimotor control. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded Wood a $75,875 grant to develop a treatment of vestibular dysfunction using a portable stimulator. “There is increasing evidence that some of the veterans have more impaired balance function than you would expect from normal aging,” Wood said. “It’s been attributed in part to traumatic brain injuries that result in a reduced ability to sense motion and orientation. Gulf War Illness also appears to be a contributing factor in the veterans we studied. Our research is interested in improving balance function for military veterans by enhancing their vestibular sensory system.”

Part of the treatment is a portable electrical device that alters the nerve activity of the balance sensors in the inner ears. When using this neuromodulation, the patient is better able to detect small changes in orientation and therefore has a lowered risk of falling. “This approach is easy to apply. Using non-invasive electrodes that clip on your earlobes, the stimulus increases your function using low electrical levels that are undetectable,” Wood said.

Wood leads a research practicum for students to develop research skills by working on projects related to behavioral neuroscience and cognitive psychology in his lab. He and his students discovered a threshold technique that they believe will optimize the treatment in patients.

One of the students who led the study is Haley Trier, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oxford, in England.“Before development of the stimulator as a clinical device, it was necessary to characterize how the stimulus level could be adjusted to an individual’s sensitivity,” Trier said. “To do this we recruited healthy volunteers and applied low levels of electrical stimulation using electrodes clipped to the earlobes. Our goal was to find the threshold--the level at which the stimulation switched from improving balance to disrupting balance. We wanted to measure both the physical and perceptual effects, so we recorded participants’ body movements with motion sensors and noted their perceptions at each level of stimulation.”

Trier said that the outcome of this study provided an objective and reliable way to adjust the stimulator according to individual differences. “This is an important breakthrough that can be used as the device is further developed as a clinical tool,” she said.

Micaela Ricaforte ’20 is a public relations intern in the Office of University Relations. She is a double major in journalism and honors humanities.