Jha and Hollis Study Effects of Dance Training on the Vestibular System

by Anne Adams

Last fall, Dr. Raghav Jha, a new Assistant Professor in CSD’s audiology program, received a UofM Communities of Research Scholars (CoRS) grant for a project titled Effects of dance training on the functioning of the vestibular system. Clinical Assistant Professor, Dr. Matt Hollis, is his co-investigator. Dr. Hollis provides clinical education and testing services in vestibular function at CSD’s Memphis Speech and Hearing Center.

“We are investigating and comparing the Vestibular Ocular Reflex (VOR) and the  capacity to voluntarily suppress these reflexes in trained dancers versus non-dancers,” Dr. Jha explained. “An abnormal VOR can induce feelings of dizziness and vertigo. Our hypothesis suggests that dancers’ training may equip them with superior abilities to suppress the VOR compared to non-dancers. Therefore, dancers may possess better control over these reflexes voluntarily, in contrast to non-dancers.” The short-term goal of the project is to analyze VOR and VOR suppression in dancers. In the long-term, the team hopes to “…develop a deeper understanding of training-induced reorganization changes among dancers and to ascertain whether dance holds therapeutic value that could potentially mitigate the risk of falls in later stages of life,” explained Jha.

An AuD student (at James Madison University) and dancer, Miranda Scalzo, contributed the idea for the project and collected some preliminary data for her AuD dissertation. “While prior studies have explored VOR measurement and its suppression among dancers using different movement frequencies, our examination protocol covers the full spectrum of body and head movements,” Dr. Jha said. “This comprehensive approach will provide a thorough understanding of VOR changes among dancers.” 

Dr. Ulrike Griebel, an evolutionary biologist and a dancer herself, is a collaborator on the project. “Dr. Griebel, with her dual expertise in zoology and dance, brings a unique perspective to the team,” Dr. Jha explained. “Her knowledge of the visual system and her experience as a dancer allow her to offer valuable insights into the connection between visual and vestibular functions.” 

As a dancer, Dr. Griebel has studied many different dance styles, including ballet, jazz, Latin, Middle Eastern, Hawaiian, and folkloric dances of various regions. “In general, some spinning is included in almost all dance forms, but the amount varies between the styles,” Dr. Griebel explained. “They vary in frequency of occurrence during the dance, in speed, and in elaboration (from simple straight body spins to different and changing body postures during spinning),” Dr. Griebel explained. This variation is an important consideration in the current project. “We can assume that these parameters will have an impact on the ‘desensitization’ of the equilibrium system, as well as the number of years and practice time the individual dancers invested in training.” 

While the current study focuses on participants with 10 or more years of formal dance training, the research team is also curious about the effect of informal dance experience. “I am most curious to learn whether amateur or hobby dancing already has an impact on our equilibrium system, or whether it requires intense professional training to make a difference,” Dr. Griebel shared. 

Lizzie Wood, also an AuD student, began as a graduate assistant in the Vestibular Research Lab last fall. Exploring the connection between physiology and clinical measures has been of particular interest to her during the project. “It's been fascinating to see how various vestibular tests evaluate the specific areas of the vestibular system,” Wood said. “This process has enhanced my understanding of the connection between our clinical testing and the underlying physiological principles.”

“I took dance lessons as a child and thoroughly enjoyed them,” Wood shared. “One of my hopes for the findings from this research is that dance training may become more accessible and encouraged for individuals of all ages. Dancing is not only an enjoyable form of exercise but may have lifelong implications for health.”

Currently, the research team is focusing on data collection and data analyses. They plan to complete data collection by August of 2024. The lab is still looking for participants with 10 or more years of formal dance training in or around Memphis. Reach out to Dr. Raghav Jha (rjha@memphis.edu) if you or anyone you know fits these criteria.