Intermountain's HerediGene population study highlights genetic underpinnings behind vertigo

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MURRAY — Nearly 40 percent of Americans experience dizziness at some point in their life — a statistic that often leads to devastating falls and unexpected visits to the emergency room. Researchers are learning this often unexplained illness ties back to our DNA.

For Stephanie Nay, everyday tasks like driving became nearly impossible two and a half years ago.

"I would start to just feel like my head would get dizzy or woozy and then the whole world would start spinning around me," she explained. "It was as if the sky and the road around me were revolving and I was just driving through this spinning tunnel."

"Every time that would happen, I would have to pull over and just sit," Nay said.

Walking, standing, and even sitting grew increasingly uncomfortable.

"I would just have to hold on to the desk, because I felt like if I didn't, I would fall out of my chair," she described. Nay didn't know the cause behind her nausea and vertigo, an illness that creates a sense of dizziness and imbalance for people. She started seeing specialists at Intermountain Healthcare, where she is also employed.

"It took me months of testing," she said, but the results were inconclusive. She donated a sample of blood to Intermountain Healthcare's HerediGene Population Study when she went in for blood testing on one occasion. Those results, in addition to tens of thousands of other DNA samples offered by other patients in Utah and Idaho, helped scientists discover an underlying genetic component to Nay's sickness.


Intermountain's Chief Scientist David Jones says through the study, researchers from Intermountain and Amgen's deCODE Genetics based in Reykjavik, Iceland, unexpectedly identified six new gene variants connected to vertigo.

"We analyze their DNA and we look for associations of common diseases with what we call genetic variants," Jones said. "We have now pinpointed a genetic explanation for dizziness in most people and what that helps them is to exclude the more serious, life threatening health conditions such as heart attack or stroke."

Jones says doctors often hear complaints of dizziness in the emergency room which can be indicative of a more serious illness or other abnormalities in the brain's anatomy including auditory or vestibular systems.

Nay hopes the findings in this study spares others the tedious process of diagnoses, for a faster road to healing.

"Oh it's mentally exhausting," she said. "Having that blood work in the beginning, and the genetic finding in the beginning would have sped up the process."

Jones believes this knowledge will help physicians better treat their patients through further testing and medications and offer more clarity behind their illness.

"There's also probably some peace of mind for many people to at least have an explanation for why they're having these dizzy spells," he said.

Jones says they intend to hold clinical trials in the future to validate these findings regarding vertigo before using them as a diagnostic tool.

Anyone can participate in the HerediGene population study through a blood draw at any Intermountain Healthcare lab. The study was launched in 2019 and is designed to better predict and prevent chronic diseases through the genetic mapping of half a million DNA samples, including cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. So far, more than 75,000 people have enrolled in the study.

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