Ask friends to list the body’s senses, and they will usually stop after five: taste, touch, sight, smell and hearing. Most do not even notice their sixth sense—the sensation of how one’s head is oriented and moving. But losing this capacity can cause dramatic, disabling vertigo, followed by chronic unsteadiness and blurred vision when the head is in motion. Fortunately, good progress is being made toward the development of bionic ear implants to restore balance in people who suffer from damage to the vestibular labyrinth of the inner ear—the part that provides us with our sixth sense.
The availability of these prostheses cannot come too soon for Richard Gannon, a 57-year-old retired steamfitter, who has homes in Pennsylvania and Florida. Gannon lost much of his sensation of balance seven years ago after suffering an apparent viral illness. “Let me be the first to get a vestibular implant,” he says. “I’ve been waiting for a call for five years. As soon as they can do it, I’ll walk to the hospital if I have to.”