A major research award worth over £2.5 million has been awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) to support cutting-edge University of Exeter research involving virtual reality, aiming find new ways to prevent older people falling.
It is estimated that one-third of the population aged 65 years will fall in a year, rising to more than fifty percent of people aged 80 years and older. About a quarter of those falling will suffer a life-changing injury.
A new project, called STEPPING OUT, aims to discover more about the mechanisms of gait instability and falls risk in older people, including how they use their senses to gather information about the world around them and use this to control movements. This understanding will inform future developments to intervene and prevent falls. The interdisciplinary team is led by Principal Investigator Professor Sallie Lamb at the University of Exeter in collaboration with Professor Clemens Becker at the University of Heidelberg.
In the past, researchers have been limited by an inability to collect real-time data on falls, as they occur randomly and unexpectedly. However, new technology has opened up ways to generate real-life scenarios enabling researchers to examine the motions behind falls. The research will use the University of Exeter’s globally unique research facility, VSimulators, in which researchers use a moving platform and virtual reality to trigger and monitor falls in a safe and controlled environment, to discover what happens in the body. The research team will be precisely measuring brain, muscular and movement processes.
Professor Sallie Lamb, Principal Investigator at the University of Exeter and Director of the NIHR Exeter Biomedical Research Centre, which is supporting the research, said: “Falling can have a devastating impact on the lives of older people, and for those whose mobility is compromised, the fear of falling can mean they’re reluctant to leave the house, leading to isolation. If we can understand more about how and why people fall, we can find new ways to keep people mobile and stable, and make a radical improvement in reducing falls.”
“This is really exciting news for University of Exeter, and will consolidate our position as world leaders in the analysis of human movement in a range of different conditions and situations.”
STEPPING OUT was one of 1,647 applications received by the European Research Council (ERC) for an Advanced Grant. Led by Professor Sallie Lamb, the team consists of three post-doctoral fellows, three PhD students and a group of experts from Exeter and Stuttgart. At Exeter the team includes Dr Genevieve Williams, Dr William Young, Prof Krasi Tsaneva, Prof Mark Wilson, Dr Bryon Creese, Prof James Brownjohn and Prof Helen Dawes, along with a considerable amount of time using the VSimulators facility.
The ERC Advanced Grant will support STEPPING OUT’s research into generating unique scientific discoveries aimed at improving fall prevention interventions for older people. The science will provide transformative effects with a fifty per cent target in reduction of falls.
The funding is awarded to researchers with ambitious, curiosity-driven projects that could lead to major scientific breakthroughs. They are awarded to established, leading researchers with a proven track-record of significant research achievements over the past decade.
The funding scheme attracts applications from a diverse range of researchers across life sciences, physical sciences and engineering, and social sciences and humanities. Because of its popularity, the scheme has an application success rate of 13 per cent.
In addition to strengthening Europe’s knowledge base, the grants are expected to create more than 2,000 jobs in research.
Maria Leptin, an ERC representative said: “We’re thrilled to announce the funding of 218 advanced grants to outstanding research leaders across Europe, totalling £478 million. We look forward to seeing the results of the new projects in the years to come, with many likely to lead to breakthroughs and new advances.”