Using Noise to Improve Balance


By MDRC Executive Director Norm DeLisle

We can find it difficult to perceive patterns of stimulation as we get older or because of brain or nerve injury. The patterns that we learned are largely still in there, but we are not as sensitive and we don’t “get” the pattern as easily. This doesn’t just affect our senses like sight or hearing. It also affects things like our ability to balance. If our feet don’t sense the patterns of what they are standing on, and the way we move from side to side and back and forth, our ability to notice that we are losing our balance gets worse and eventually we fall.

In older people, falling is the biggest single reason for ending up in a nursing home. One out of 8 seniors will have a serious fall each year, and a quarter of those will die within 12 months.

So, preventing falls is a powerful support for maintaining independence and life choices.

Small amounts of noise can actually make it easier for us to sense those patterns, even when the pattern is weak. Basically, the noise will make parts of the pattern stronger, and we can then use our weakened pattern sensing ability to still get the pattern. This process goes by the intimidating name of “stochastic resonance” (stochastic means noisy; resonance means amplification).

A study in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation looked at using this technique in a shoe insole with tiny electric signalers that would send out noise to your foot along with the usual things you sense when you are wearing shoes and walking. The noise was so weak that the people using the insoles couldn’t tell that anything was happening. But they still had improved balance. This noise can help the balance of healthy youngsters and older people with diabetic neuropathy and insensitivity from a stroke. Basically, anyone could benefit.


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