Mal de Debarquement Syndrome: A Matter of Loops?

Viviana Mucci, Iole Indovina, Cherylea J. Browne, Franco Blanchini, Giulia Giordano, Lucio Marinelli, Bruno Burlando

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Introduction: Mal de Debarquement Syndrome (MdDS) is a poorly understood neurological disorder affecting mostly perimenopausal women. MdDS has been hypothesized to be a maladaptation of the vestibulo-ocular reflex, a neuroplasticity disorder, and a consequence of neurochemical imbalances and hormonal changes. Our hypothesis considers elements from these theories, but presents a novel approach based on the analysis of functional loops, according to Systems and Control Theory. Hypothesis: MdDS is characterized by a persistent sensation of self-motion, usually occurring after sea travels. We assume the existence of a neuronal mechanism acting as an oscillator, i.e., an adaptive internal model, that may be able to cancel a sinusoidal disturbance of posture experienced aboard, due to wave motion. Thereafter, we identify this mechanism as a multi-loop neural network that spans between vestibular nuclei and the flocculonodular lobe of the cerebellum. We demonstrate that this loop system has a tendency to oscillate, which increases with increasing strength of neuronal connections. Therefore, we hypothesize that synaptic plasticity, specifically long-term potentiation, may play a role in making these oscillations poorly damped. Finally, we assume that the neuromodulator Calcitonin Gene-Related Peptide, which is modulated in perimenopausal women, exacerbates this process thus rendering the transition irreversible and consequently leading to MdDS. Conclusion and Validation: The concept of an oscillator that becomes noxiously permanent can be used as a model for MdDS, given a high correlation between patients with MdDS and sea travels involving undulating passive motion, and an alleviation of symptoms when patients are re-exposed to similar passive motion. The mechanism could be further investigated utilizing posturography tests to evaluate if subjective perception of motion matches with objective postural instability. Neurochemical imbalances that would render individuals more susceptible to developing MdDS could be investigated through hormonal profile screening. Alterations in the connections between vestibular nuclei and cerebellum, notably GABAergic fibers, could be explored by neuroimaging techniques as well as transcranial magnetic stimulation. If our hypothesis were tested and verified, optimal targets for MdDS treatment could be found within both the neural networks and biochemical factors that are deemed to play a fundamental role in loop functioning and synaptic plasticity.

Original languageEnglish
Article number576860
JournalFrontiers in Neurology
Publication statusPublished - Nov 10 2020


  • brain derived neurotrophic factor
  • calcitonin gene related peptide
  • functional loops
  • mal de debarquement syndrome
  • synaptic plasticity
  • systems and control theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology


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