The University of Newcastle, Australia

Alan Brichta

Professor Alan Brichta's primary research interest is balance and the vestibular system.  His most recent NHMRC-funded research has focused on the efferent branch of the vestibular system – the pathway by which the brain can modulate inner ear sensitivity.  

Despite fifty years of ongoing research, the functional purpose of the efferent vestibular system still remains a mystery – most likely due to its inherently complex mechanisms of action. To combat this, Alan has developed a semi-intact model of the vestibular system, which allows for faithful, high-resolution recordings of hair cell function.  This recording technique has provided new information about the efferent vestibular system, with particular regards to the novel alpha-9 nicotinic receptor.

Alan has ongoing collaborations with vestibular experts Dr Americo Migliaccio (Neuroscience Research Australia; NeuRA), Dr Joseph Holt (University of Rochester, USA) and Dr Richard Rabbitt (University of Utah, USA), as well as HMRI neuroscientists Professor Bob Callister and Dr Doug Smith.  He is also closely affiliated with the Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams Memorial Foundation (GPRWMF), and the Neuro-Otology Society of Australia (NOTSA).  Alan is currently the Head of Discipline (Anatomy), supervises multiple PhD students, and teaches into a number of programs including Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Biomedical Science.

What intrigues you most about the vestibular system?

I know it may sound a little strange but almost from the moment I learned about the vestibular system, I've been fascinated and intrigued by the subtle and mysterious way it works to provide us with a sense of balance.

The vestibular system allows us go about our daily activities, correcting almost every move we make, so that we don't fall over. And it does this with little or no fanfare or even very much recognition. The vestibular system is neither blatant nor does it intrude on our consciousness with the flamboyance of primary senses such as vision and hearing. If the vestibular system is doing its job properly it is almost imperceptible, working away with exquisite precision, speed, and accuracy. Perhaps it is precisely this 'backstage activity' that is responsible for our general lack of awareness and why we know so much less about this system in comparison to its close cousin, the hearing or auditory system. In short, the more I get to know the vestibular system the more I am in awe of the 'no nonsense' way in which it influences almost all aspects of our lives, making it the 'quiet achiever', or dare I say, the unsung hero or heroine of the central nervous system.