Hypothesis: It is possible to implant a stimulating electrode array in the semicircular canals without damaging rotational sensitivity or hearing. The electrodes will evoke robust and precisely controlled eye movements.
Background: A number of groups are attempting to develop a neural prosthesis to ameliorate abnormal vestibular function. Animal studies demonstrate that electrodes near the canal ampullae can produce electrically evoked eye movements. The target condition of these studies is typically bilateral vestibular hypofunction. Such a device could potentially be more widely useful clinically and would have a simpler roadmap to regulatory approval if it produced minimal or no damage to the native vestibular and auditory systems.
Methods: An electrode array was designed for insertion into the bony semicircular canal adjacent to the membranous canal. It was designed to be sufficiently narrow so as to not compress the membranous canal. The arrays were manufactured by Cochlear, Ltd., and linked to a Nucleus Freedom receiver/stimulator. Seven behaviorally trained rhesus macaques had arrays placed in 2 semicircular canals using a transmastoid approach and "soft surgical" procedures borrowed from Hybrid cochlear implant surgery. Postoperative vestibulo-ocular reflex was measured in a rotary chair. Click-evoked auditory brainstem responses were also measured in the 7 animals using the contralateral ear as a control.
Results: All animals had minimal postoperative vestibular signs and were eating within hours of surgery. Of 6 animals tested, all had normal postoperative sinusoidal gain. Of 7 animals, 6 had symmetric postoperative velocity step responses toward and away from the implanted ear. The 1 animal with significantly asymmetric velocity step responses also had a significant sensorineural hearing loss. One control animal that underwent canal plugging had substantial loss of the velocity step response toward the canal-plugged ear. In 5 animals, intraoperative electrically evoked vestibular compound action potential recordings facilitated electrode placement. Postoperatively, electrically evoked eye movements were obtained from electrodes associated with an electrically evoked vestibular compound action potential wave form. Hearing was largely preserved in 6 animals and lost in 1 animal.
Conclusion: It is possible to implant the vestibular system with prosthetic stimulating electrodes without loss of rotational sensitivity or hearing. Because electrically evoked eye movements can be reliably obtained with the assistance of intraoperative electrophysiology, it is appropriate to consider treatment of a variety of vestibular disorders using prosthetic electrical stimulation. Based on these findings, and others, a feasibility study for the treatment of human subjects with disabling Ménière's disease has begun.