Research Articles

Why is our sense of balance (Vestibular system) so important in learning?
Balance is used for much more than might be assumed.
Balance enables us to keep the head upright and still while reading, orient eyes on a page to discern letters and words, catch a football in the hand, remain upright throughout a throwing motion, or hold food on a fork or spoon.
Without balance, an athlete would be unable to travel through space to get to the basket or the goal line.
Since the 1960s, NASA has funded basic research looking at how balance affects brain processing and sensory integration (Graybiel et al., 1967; Miller & Graybiel, 1973; Stone & Letko, 1965). Belgau (2002) has analyzed much of that research and found that activities having a strong balance component significantly affect vision, reading, learning difficulties, and overall academic achievement.
That is because balance activities use the same neural networks responsible for visual, auditory, motor, and sensory processes that influence efficiency of the brain’s neural networks.
In children not able to integrate the senses in an efficient way, learning problems are a common result.
So Belgau’s findings support Dennison’s theory that balance activities, eye teaming, and hemisphere integration contribute to the integration process and subsequently led to the development of the Belgau Balance Board and the Learning Breakthrough Programme.
The same activities provide stimulation to other sensory input areas that enhance attentional focus and, ultimately, learning ability by providing the feedback necessary for sensory integration (Belgau, 2002).
Palmer (1980) has demonstrated significant gains in attention and reading ability with children who were exposed to spinning, crawling, rolling, rocking, and tumbling. Twenty-two kindergarten children did rolling, spinning, crawling, and somersaulting activities for a minimum of 20 minutes per day for five months. Every child was subsequently able to perform a single flip (forward roll), completed the kindergarten year with only five months of instruction, and had reading scores significantly above normal expectations.
Palmer argues that these were all the result of vestibular stimulation and sensory integration activities. A quick summary of other research related to balance activities shows that children
  1. Improve academic achievement (CDE News Release, 2002; Hannaford, 1995; Hubert, 2001; Kearney, 1996; Pollatschek & Hagan, 1996): Children who perform poor academically also have poor motor skill development because the same brain processes are involved.
  2. Enhance reading and visual processing (Ayers, 1972; Blaydes & Hess, 2002; Gilbert, 1977; Houston, 1982): Reading and visual processing problems are caused by inefficient coordination and integration between the brain and sensory systems. Balance activities increase integration between the brain hemispheres.
  3. Improve writing skills (Ayers, 1991; Dennison & Dennison, 1994; Hannaford, 1995): Writing is a fine motor activity that requires good hand-eye coordination; poor handwriting is caused by poor sensory integration.
  4. Enhance athletic performance (Jenson, 2000; Kramer, 1999; Shepherd, 1996): Athletes need to be able to make quick decisions and evaluate information in the field, all of which depend on the brain’s ability to integrate information from all senses, especially the vestibular system. 5. Decrease learning disabilities (Hannaford, 1995; Hubert, 2001): Balance activities effectively increase brain processing. Activities that improve brain processing improve performance in both academics and athletics.
Deborah Stevens-Smith



Please click on the following PDFs to read recent sports studies:
Reichenbach, A., Bresciani, J., Bülthoff, H. H., and Thielscher, A. (2016) ‘Reaching with the Sixth Sense: Vestibular contributions to Motor Control in the Human Right Parietal Cortex’ NeuroImage, vol. 124 p. 869-875
Abstract: The vestibular system constitutes the silent sixth sense: It automatically triggers a variety of vital reflexes to maintain postural and visual stability. Beyond their role in reflexive behavior, vestibular afferents contribute to several perceptual and cognitive functions and also support voluntary control of movements by complementing the other senses to accomplish the movement goal. Investigations into the neural correlates of vestibular contri- bution to voluntary action in humans are challenging and have progressed far less than research on correspond- ing visual and proprioceptive involvement. Here, we demonstrate for the first time with event-related TMS that the posterior part of the right medial intraparietal sulcus processes vestibular signals during a goal-directed reaching task with the dominant right hand. This finding suggests a qualitative difference between the processing of vestibular vs. visual and proprioceptive signals for controlling voluntary movements, which are pre-dominant- ly processed in the left posterior parietal cortex. Furthermore, this study reveals a neural pathway for vestibular input that might be distinct from the processing for reflexive or cognitive functions, and opens a window into their investigation in humans.
Gurvich, C., Maller, J. J., Lithgow,S. H., Kulkarni, J. (2013) ‘Vestibular Insights into Cognitiion and Psychiatry’ Brain Research, vol. 1537, p. 244 – 259.
Abstract: The vestibular system has traditionally been thought of as a balance apparatus; however, accumulating research suggests an association between vestibular function and psychiatric and cognitive symptoms, even when balance is measurably unaffected. There are several brain regions that are implicated in both vestibular pathways and psychiatric disorders. The present review examines the anatomical associations between the vestibular system and various psychiatric disorders. Despite the lack of direct evidence for vestibular pathology in the key psychiatric disorders selected for this review, there is a substantial body of literature implicating the vestibular system in each of the selected psychiatric disorders. The second part of this review provides complimentary evidence showing the link between vestibular dysfunction and vestibular stimulation upon cognitive and psychiatric symptoms. In summary, emerging research suggests the vestibular system can be considered a potential window for exploring brain function beyond that of maintenance of balance, and into areas of cognitive, affective and psychiatric symptomology. Given the paucity of biological and diagnostic markers in psychiatry, novel avenues to explore brain function in psychiatric disorders are of particular interest and warrant further exploration.
Cowden, J. (1980) ‘A Controlled Single Subject Research Design Utilizing a Sensory Motor Intervention System’ Research Report 143, United States Department of Education: National Institute of Education. Reproduced for the Educational Resource Information Center (ERIC).
Abstract: The study investigated and recorded changes in selected psychomotor skills of an 11-year old gifted male with severe motoric problems identified as dysgraphia. A pre-post test design using videotape evaluation recordings was employed to determine changes in psychomotor performance, and a rating scale was designed to establish baseline and determine performance changes after administration of a sensory motor intervention approach. The approach featured stimulation of vestibular, kinesthetic, tactile, and visual sensory modalities. Correlated tests were applied to factor grouped data as measured by a panel of six raters, indicating that the S improved significantly in body awareness and visual-motor control. The practical value of single-subject designs is emphasized.
King-Downling, S., MIssiuna, C., Rodriguez, M., C., Greenway, M. and Cairnery, J. (2015) ‘Co-occurring Motor, Language and Emotional-behavioral Problems in Children 3-6 Years of Age’ Human Movement Science, vol. 39, p. 101-108.
Abstract: Purpose: Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) has been shown to co-occur with behavioral and language problems in school-aged children, but little is known as to when these problems begin to emerge, or if they are inherent in children with DCD. The purpose of this study was to determine if deficits in language and emotional–behavioral problems are apparent in preschool-aged children with movement difficulties. Method: Two hundred and fourteen children (mean age 4 years 11 months, SD 9.8 months, 103 male) performed the Movement Assessment Battery for Children 2nd Edition (MABC-2). Children falling at or below the 16th percentile were classified as being at risk for movement difficulties (MD risk). Auditory comprehension and expressive communication were examined using the Preschool Language Scales 4th Edition (PLS-4). Parent-reported emotional and behavioral problems were assessed using the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL). Results: Preschool children with diminished motor coordination (n = 37) were found to have lower language scores, higher externalizing behaviors in the form of increased aggression, as well as increased withdrawn and other behavior symptoms compared with their typically developing peers.
Nicolson, R., I and Fawcett, A. J. (2011) “Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Procedural Learning and the Cerebellum’ Cortex, vol. 24, p. 117-127.
Abstract: In this review we focus on the developmental disorders of dyslexia (a disorder of reading) and dysgraphia (a disorder of writing), considering their commonalities and differences with a view to reflecting on the theoretical implications. This review attempts to tease out the different strands of theoretical research underlying these confusions by analyzing explanations of dyslexia and dysgraphia at the cognitive level and the brain level, considering both cortical and sub-cortical systems. Traditionally, it had been considered that dyslexic children showed a form of ‘minimal brain dysfunction’ associated with a general problem in learning. There is considerable heterogeneity in the skills of dyslexic children, as might be expected given the very large numbers involved. Subsequent research on the functional role of the cerebellum has provided support for the cerebellar deficit framework, with developments in cognitive neuroscience confirming two-way anatomical and functional connectivity of the cerebellum with frontal cortex and strongly supporting the role of the cerebellum in language related tasks as well as in learning complex cognitive/motor skills such as tool use. The major cognitive level explanatory framework for dyslexia that predicts motor skill deficits is the automatization deficit hypothesis. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Ito, M. (2008) ‘Control of Mental Activities by Internal Models in the Cerebellum’ Perspective, vol. 9, p. 304 – 313
Abstract: The intricate neuronal circuitry of the cerebellum is thought to encode internal models that reproduce the dynamic properties of body parts. These models are essential for controlling the movement of these body parts: they allow the brain to precisely control the movement without the need for sensory feedback. It is thought that the cerebellum might also encode internal models that reproduce the essential properties of mental representations in the cerebral cortex. This hypothesis suggests a possible mechanism by which intuition and implicit thought might function and explains some of the symptoms that are exhibited by psychiatric patients. This article examines the conceptual bases and experimental evidence for this hypothesis.