Aculight Corp. of Bothell, Wash., has received an $850,000 award from the National Institutes of Health for a joint effort with the University of Washington in Seattle to develop a laser-based vestibular implant. The device will use infrared nerve stimulation to treat impaired balance and vision. "Balance disorders such as vertigo and dizziness are among the most common reasons that elderly Americans seek heath care," said Mark Bendett, Aculight's director of medical products. "We're laying the foundation for an optical implant that could treat patients with balance and vision impairments due to vestibular system damage. This SBIR will enable Aculight to produce a laser-based nerve stimulation device that can be used in research studies at the University of Washington prior to developing a model for clinical applications." The vestibular system, the body's balance system, is located within the inner ear. Balance and vision impairments occur when the vestibular hair cells become damaged, prohibiting the transmission of sensory signals to the brain. Currently, there are no clinically available treatments to restore the loss of sensory information. However, researchers believe that direct vestibular stimulation may alleviate symptoms in many patients. Infrared stimulation, in particular, could provide a precise, controlled, noncontact method of stimulating the nerve, Aculight said. The contract was awarded under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.