A tiny piercing in a tongue can dramatically improve the quality of life of people with severe spine injuries

Wireless tongue piercing improves wheel-chair control

American researchers have developed a wireless wearable device that enables patients paralysed from the neck down to steer their wheel chairs by gentle moves of their tongues.

The titanium barbell ring, pierced through the patients’ tongues works as a joystick that controls the wheel chair and could also be connected to a computer, making it easier to execute commands.

Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, together with their colleagues from the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, have tested the Tongue Drive System (TDS) on 11 patients with severe spinal injuries and published their results in the latest issue of the Science Translational Medicine journal.

"The Tongue Drive System is a novel technology that empowers people with disability to achieve maximum independence at home and in the community by enabling them to drive a power wheelchair and control their environment in a smoother and more intuitive way," said Elliot Roth, M.D, a medical director of the patient recovery unit at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and one of the study’s main investigators.

"The opportunity to use this high-tech innovation to improve the quality of life among people with mobility limitations is very exciting."

During the trials, the patients were asked to compare the new Tongue Drive System (TDS) with currently existing technologies that rely on keypads or use a sip-and-puff device that allows steering a wheelchair by either inhaling or exhaling through a tube connected to sensors.

The studied subjects took part in six testing sessions, during which their performance using the new and the old technology was measured and compared.

Although the TDS device was new for the patients and they all had previous experience with the sip-and-puff technology, their performance using the TDS was improving exponentially with ever session and they soon performed three times better with the TDS than with the sip-and-puff.

"By the end of the trials, everybody preferred the Tongue Drive System over their current assistive technology," said Joy Bruce, manager of the Shepherd Center's Spinal Cord Injury Lab and co-author of the study. "It allows them to engage their environment in a way that is otherwise not possible for them."

Apart from the quadriplegics, healthy individuals were also included in the study to verify the results.

The tests were performed in laboratory conditions, however, in the next stages, the researchers would like to examine how the TDS would improve performance of quadriplegics in real-life scenarios.

The study’s principal author Maysam Ghovanloo, an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has recently set up a start-up company called Bionic Sciences to help commercialise the technology which has the potential to improve the quality of life of thousands of quadriplegics around the world. 

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