Data from Utah patients helps find a genetic link to vertigo, researchers report

The discovery could lead to a treatment for millions of Americans with balance problems.

(Intermountain Healthcare) Astros Skuladottir, a researcher for deCODE genetics in Reykjavik, Iceland, speaks to reporters on Oct. 20, 2021, describing the study she led, which found six genetic variants linked to vertigo — a study that used data from Utahns who entered Intermountain Healthcare's HerediGene DNA project.

Researchers in Utah and Iceland have found some variants in the human genome that can determine who gets vertigo — a discovery that could help better diagnose and treat the condition that causes dizziness and balance problems in millions of Americans.

The scientists — some of them working for Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare as well as deCODE genetics, based in Reykjavik, Iceland — have discovered six common genetic variants associated with vertigo.

The study used DNA data collected in the United States, Iceland, the United Kingdom and Finland — comparing data from 48,000 people with vertigo with some 895,000 people who don’t, said Astros Skuladottir, principal investigator on the study, speaking to reporters Wednesday from deCODE’s offices in Iceland in a virtual news conference arranged by Intermountain.

Some of that data was from HerediGene: Population Study, a program launched in 2019 by Intermountain and deCODE, a subsidiary of the biopharmaceutical giant Amgen.

The findings were published Oct. 7 in the journal Communications Biology, published by Nature.

Vertigo affects nearly 40% of the U.S. population at some point in their life, according to Intermountain. It’s a leading cause for falls and broken bones, which account for tens of thousands of trips to the emergency department each year.

Stephanie Nay, an Intermountain employee who has had bouts of vertigo over the last few years, described the sensation as if she was “walking in a tunnel that was revolving around me.”

Nay is one of more than 80,000 people who have donated a blood sample to the HerediGene study, which aims to collect more than a half-million DNA samples from people in Utah and Idaho. Intermountain touts the program as the largest and most comprehensive DNA-mapping effort from a single population in the U.S.

Finding the genetic cause for vertigo can lead to finding a treatment, said deCODE’s founder and CEO, Dr. Kári Stefánsson. “If you demonstrate a disease is caused by an upgrade of a [genetic] pathway, you can then develop a drug to downgrade that same pathway,” Stefánsson said.

The vertigo study, Skuladottir said, “really showcases the importance of this collaborative work — to use the big data sets we have, and combine them to find sequence variants and the biological underpinnings of diseases.”

The vertigo study found that none of the six genetic variants were associated with hearing loss, and only one was associated with age-related hearing impairment, Skuladottir said. This is significant because the vestibular system, in the inner ear, regulates one’s sense of balance.

Finding a genetic link for vertigo also can help doctors attempting to diagnose strokes and heart attacks, said Dr. Kirk Knowlton, chair of the cardiovascular research department at Intermountain’s Heart Institute.

Many people in cardiovascular distress complain of dizziness, Knowlton said. But dizziness can come two ways — the “spinning” sensation of vertigo, or the fainting caused by a lack of blood to the brain — and patients may not be able to tell the difference when it’s happening, he said. So if a doctor knows whether a patient has the genetic variants that indicate vertigo, it may speed up diagnosis of a cardiovascular problem, he said.

Dr. Lincoln Nadauld, vice president and chief of precision health and academics at Intermountain, said this study is the first instance of the HerediGene program’s data being used to find a genetic link to a particular disease.

“I would not have guessed that vertigo is what we would find first,” Nadauld said. Both Nadauld and Stefánsson said other studies using HerediGene’s data are in the works that may reveal genetic links to other disorders.