Research Communications

Scientists Receive $2.8 Million for Neuroscience Research 

NIH funding will help researchers learn more about sense of balance

January 2007

ATHENS, Ohio - Scientists have received a $2.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how the head movements of turtles can shed new light on the human sense of balance. 

The researchers, led by Ohio University Professor of Biological Sciences Ellengene Peterson, will shoot high-speed films of turtles to better understand how tiny hair cells in their inner ears detect head movements and allow the brain to create a sense of balance and steady vision.

The apparatus – called the vestibular system – is similar in animals and humans and is particularly easy to study in turtles, said Peterson, who is conducting the research with Ohio University scientists Michael Rowe and Alexander Neiman, as well as colleagues at Harvard University, Clemson University and Virginia Tech.

The vestibular system is poorly understood, however, compared to scientists’ knowledge of the human vision or hearing systems, the researchers said. Dysfunction in the system – which impacts millions of Americans – can cause problems ranging from dizziness to complete disorientation, as well as serious diseases such as Meniere’s disease.

“There are all kinds of balance disorders, which especially affect elderly people,” Peterson said. “Anything we find out about how the vestibular system normally functions can be used by other researchers to develop tests to determine where the problem is within the system, as well as rational treatment strategies.”

Though neuroscientists have traditionally used animals as laboratory models to study the system, the new project is the first to record their unrestrained head movements in a quasi-natural environment. Behaviorist Richard Blob of Clemson University will make high-speed films of the turtles as they swim and eat. Blob and Neiman, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Ohio University, will analyze the head movements and resulting movements of the utricle – a key organ in the vestibular system under study in this project – in the animal’s skull.

Engineer J.W. Grant of Virginia Tech will calculate the exact stimuli to the utricle, which will allow Rowe, an Ohio University professor of biological sciences, and Ruth Anne Eatock of Harvard University to design stimuli for neurophysiological and computational studies on two key cells in the vestibular system: hair cells, which are the receptors that detect head movement, and afferent neurons that transmit those signals to the brain.

This large collaboration of biologists, physicists and engineers represents the future of all areas within the life sciences, including neuroscience, said Peterson. She and her Ohio University colleagues are members of the university’s Neuroscience Program and the Quantitative Biology Institute, which promote such interdisciplinary collaborations.

The team’s new five-year National Institutes of Health award will support salaries for research technicians, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at the participating universities, as well as supplies and equipment.

Peterson previously has received funding from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health for her studies on the structure of hair cells in the vestibular system and their role in neurological functions.
Contact: Ellengene Peterson, (740) 593-2111,; Andrea Gibson, Director of Research Communications, (740) 597-2166,