Foot Sensitivity and Balance

(CBC Radio One Quirks and Quarks)

CBC Radio Host Bob McDonald interviewed researcher Dr. Leah Bent at the University of Guelph who measured skin sensitivity of astronauts before they visited the International Space Station. She will follow this up when they return. She is interested in how skin on the soles of feet and vestibular (inner ear) input relate to balance in seniors. Much research has been done on the effects on balance in older adults due to changes in what is believed to be theĀ three components of balance: visual, vestibular, and proprioception. Proprioception is the body’s ability to sense where it is in relation to the environment through skin sensitivity, foot and ankle placement, and stability. Studies have shown that these three components are all compromised with age and thus older adults have a higher risk of falling. Dr. Bent’s research is concerned with pin-pointing which receptors in the feet are most affected by periods of weightlessness such as when astronauts are in flight. It is believed that since astronauts in flight have compromised vestibular input because of loss of gravity, skin sensitivity is increased, allowing them to maintain balance. It is Dr. Bent’s hope that by better identifying these skin receptors, she will be able to target them specifically to improve their sensitivity in seniors, thus decreasing the risk of falling. Exercise regimens which are used to improve balance in older adults tend to be quite generalized, by increasing muscular strength in the ankle and hip and enhancing the proprioception by shutting down or compromising the other two components, for example doing one legged stands with eyes closed (visual) or doing tandem walking while turning the head (vestibular). Instead, if specific proprioceptors in the feet can be identified and thus stimulated in further experiments, this may be a more effective way to balance-train older adults.

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