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SIU Medicine scientist to explore aging’s effect on balance

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Balance problems that often accompany aging can lead to falls and injury. Research has also shown a strong link between balance disorders such as unsteady gait or vertigo and Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

An SIU Medicine research scientist has been awarded a $3.2 million grant from the National Institute on Aging to study how cumulative damage to specific hair cells in the inner ear can lead to these troubling balance problems. Her lab will also investigate whether this process is enhanced when there is a predisposition to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Brandon Cox, PhD, and her colleagues have identified an age-related reduction in a gene known as Pou4f3 that is related to vestibular hair cell death in the balance organs of the inner ear.

“Exactly why these cells die as we age is a mystery,” Cox said. “Our research suggests that this gene plays a significant role in maintaining the health of hair cells that control our balance. With aging, this gene is turned off, followed by a degeneration of the cells. It makes this a promising therapeutic target for preserving balance function.”

Cox is an associate professor in SIU’s Department of Pharmacology and a primary co-investigator on the 5-year grant with Brad Walters, PhD, at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Previously, Dr. Cox was awarded more than $3 million in grants from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Defense for her research.

In addition to their studies of the vestibular system, the Cox lab is investigating the mechanism controlling hair cell regeneration, a process that holds the potential to restore hearing. They are interested in the developmental changes that take place soon after birth that prevent regeneration from occurring later in life. Other projects in the lab are focused on mechanisms that regulate auditory hair cell survival during postnatal maturation, aging, and in stressed hair cells after noise exposure.

The mission of SIU School of Medicine is to optimize the health of the people of central and southern Illinois through education, patient care, research and service to the community. SIU Medicine, the health care practice of the school of medicine, includes clinics and offices with more than 300 providers caring for patients throughout the region.

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