The March of Science continues to reach unexpected levels. Scientists have invented a wireless device that allows paralyzed people to steer their wheelchair using their tongues.
In a recent clinical experiment, people paralyzed in all four limbs, a condition known as tetraplegia or quadriplegia, used the tongue-driven system to guide a wheelchair through an obstacle course.
There are presently about 250,000 people in the United States suffering from what are called “high-level” spinal cord injuries.
Maysam Ghovanloo, an electrical engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta told Live Science, “As of now, paralyzed individuals have very limited options,” His team feel that the device could give people with severe disabilities greater independence and a better quality of life.
A tiny magnet the size of a lentil and shaped like a barbell is inserted into the pierced tongue. As the subject moves the tongue, a headset measures variations in the magnetic field. It sends this information to a smartphone which has a program that converts the information into a form that can control the movement of a wheelchair or a computer cursor.
The device was tested on 34 participants; 11 with tetraplegia and 23 able-bodied volunteers. All of them completed various tasks, such as playing video games, dialing phone numbers, and driving a powered wheelchair through an obstacle course. They did this by moving their tongues inside the edges of their teeth.
The able-bodied participants were more familiar with using computers, and scored better on those tasks. On the other hand, the paralyzed people use a wheelchair every day, so they did better at that.
Users can hold their tongues against their cheek for three seconds to put the system on standby. This ensures that they can eat, for example, without sending out signals that move the wheelchair. After they finish, they can use the same command to turn the system back on.
The researchers are already working to upgrade the concept. They hope to develop a tongue system that fits entirely inside the mouth without needing a headset. Ghovanloo and his team have started a company to develop the device commercially. However, it will still need to undergo additional testing. After clinical trials are completed, the device needs approval from the Food and Drug Administration before being made available to the public.
Having advanced so far, and with technology developing so rapidly, it will surely be only a short time until it becomes a common sight to see many tongue controlled wheelchairs.