NIH Recognizes OHSU Researcher for Past Breakthroughs With New Grant

02/23/05    Portland, Ore.

Oregon Health & Science University Neurological Sciences Institute researcher Fay Horak, Ph.D., has been honored by the National Institutes of Health with an NIH MERIT Award. This special grant award is provided to researchers who demonstrate outstanding productivity during their previous years of research. Horak was selected for this award by the National Advisory Council on Aging to support her aging research, which has been continuously funded by the NIH for the last 25 years. The awards also provide long-term stable support for research, freeing investigators from some of the administrative burdens associated with the traditional research grant process. In comparison to traditional NIH grants, which last three to five years, MERIT award grants last eight to 10 years. MERIT stands for Method to Extend Research In Time. Fewer than 5 percent of NIH-funded investigators are selected to receive MERIT Awards.

Horak's $2.75 million grant will be used to investigate balance and posture disorders in the elderly. The all-too-common problem of falls in older people leads to significant decrements in functioning and quality of life. Horak's studies aim to improve the understanding of balance control in older persons, including those with Parkinson's disease, ataxia, diabetic neuropathy and vestibular disorders. Subgroups of older individuals, such as those with Parkinson's disease, are at an even greater risk of falls than older people without neurological disorders.

"As Parkinson's disease progresses, almost all patients are at risk of falls and injuries," said Horak's longtime co-investigator on this grant, John Nutt, M.D., director of the OHSU Parkinson's Center of Oregon. "This risk limits patients mobility in their home and community and markedly detracts from their quality of life. Dr. Horak's work is helping us to better understand the causes of falls and to develop methods to avoid or treat patients that are falling. Dr. Horak's laboratory has the most sophisticated research equipment and conducts innovative experiments that makes it the world's leading research center for the study of the nervous system control of balance and what goes wrong with in neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease."

As both a physical therapist and a neuroscientist, Horak tries to bridge the gap between innovative basic science and improved clinical treatments. Horak's studies provide the basis for improved rehabilitation of balance disorders and fall prevention. in addition to the opportunities to learn about the function of specific regions of the nervous system in control of balance.

"Almost every part of the nervous system is involved in control of balance," explained Horak. "In addition, each individual's balance problem is a unique and requires a customized rehabilitation based on a systematic evaluation. For example, an individual with Parkinson's disease may be very stable standing in the dark, even on an unstable surface, but highly vulnerable to a fall when pushed backward. In contrast, an individual with a vestibular disorder may be unable to stand in the dark on an unstable surface, but can produce effective balance responses to a push. Thus, the type of balance rehabilitation must differ for these different types of balance problems."

Horak's research has revolutionized the treatment of balance disorders by physical therapists. Horak is also president of the International Society for Posture and Gait Research, senior editor of the journal Gait and Posture, and is on the National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research Subcommittee of the NIH. She is among the top 5 percent of researchers in the United States in receipt of grant support from the NIH.
Horak is senior scientist at the Neurological Sciences Institute and a professor of neurology, physiology and pharmacology in the OHSU School of Medicine; and a professor of biomedical engineering in the OHSU OGI School of Science & Engineering. The NSI's mission is to advance our understanding of the brain and neurological disorders. NSI scientists use integrated and interdisciplinary approaches to expand knowledge about how the brain and nervous system function. Their goal is to translate new knowledge into innovative ways to diagnose, treat, cure and prevent neurological diseases and disorders.