Stimulating the brain to stop people falling

May 11, 2016

Dr Ann-Maree VallenceResearchers at Murdoch University are using magnetic brain stimulation to help prevent people from falling over when they get older.

The University has been awarded $410,000 in research funding for the project, which will use the non-invasive technique to identify and stimulate weakening structural connections in the brain.

Falls are a major cause of injury in the elderly. With an ageing population living longer and requiring greater levels of care than previous generations, preventative medicine has become increasingly important.

By 2050, it’s predicted that 21% of the Australian population will be over the age of 60. Current annual spend on aged-care services in Australia is $11 billion. Health funding has become a critical issue for patients, families and politicians.

Dr Ann-Maree Vallence is a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Early Career Research Fellow at Murdoch’s School of Psychology and Exercise Science.

Her research looks at how age affects our ability to move our bodies and why people are at higher risk of falling over when they get older.

Dr Vallence will use cutting-edge, non-invasive brain stimulation to characterise brain activity and connectivity, with the aim of reversing age-related movement deficits. Applying this mechanistic understanding to age-related deficits in voluntary movement control will help develop novel, multifaceted interventions to slow, or even reverse, conditions associated with advanced age.

“A common consequence of age-related declines in voluntary movement is a near-fall, which results in reduced activity and fear of falling, which in turn increases the likelihood of a major fall and injury,” said Dr Vallence.

“The outcomes of a major fall are obvious – loss of independence and admission to aged-care. Improving voluntary motor control in the ageing population will have a significantly positive effect on families and communities.”

Dr Vallence received funding for her research from the NHMRC. She was given a Peter Doherty Early Career Research Fellowship, funding her project for four years until 2018. Additional funding has come from the WA Department of Health Merit Award and the Rebecca L Cooper Medical Research Foundation.

The project reflects Murdoch University’s core research philosophy, which includes a focus on Health Futures and translating research findings into solutions for real world problems.

Preventing elderly people falling has the potential to make a big difference to their quality of life.

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