mnd ear device

Ear device could help Motor Neurone Disease patients communicate

Image credit: university of bath

A new device could help people with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) communicate better by twitching a small muscle within their ear.

MND is a degenerative disease which famously afflicted physicist Stephen Hawking. It left him unable to control any part of his body except for his cheek muscle, which he twitched in order to communicate.

Dubbed Earswitch, the prototype device, developed by Bath University researchers, allows people to communicate by tensing a tiny muscle within their ear to operate an assistive keyboard, like the one used by Hawking.

The device is linked to the tensor tympani muscle, which for some can be controlled voluntarily. This muscle is one of the smallest in the body and was once thought to help protect the eardrum from loud noise.

It is believed that control of this muscle might be preserved in people ‘locked-in’ due to stroke, and in late-stage MND.


Dr Gompertz with the Earswitch

This is important because existing assistive devices can become unusable as neurological conditions such as MND worsen over time. As such, Earswitch might offer a breakthrough for individuals with the most severe communications restrictions.

Dr Nick Gompertz, who developed the prototype, said: “Many people won’t have ever noticed this muscle in their ears. But when they are asked to concentrate when they yawn they may notice the muscle makes it more difficult to hear, which may also cause a fullness or rumbling sensation in their ears.

“Our current working prototype is a miniature camera held in a silicone ear-piece. The camera picks up movement of the eardrum when the person intentionally tenses the middle ear muscle. This movement is detected by the computer and controls an on-screen keyboard. The keyboard scans sequentially through rows of letters, then groups of letters, allowing single letters to be selected by a simple ‘ear-click’.”

Dr Gompertz believes there is a huge potential for Earswitch in helping people to communicate, future assistive applications could include answering calls via headphones while on the move.

The team behind Earswitch also want to understand more about people’s ability to control their tensor tympani muscle, and whether it’s possible to train people to do so. Currently very little is known about what proportion of the population can voluntarily move this muscle.

They hope that development of Earswitch can be scaled up within the next two years.

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