Many Americans live with some form of paralysis. Some have had severe spinal cord injuries, causing paraplegia or quadriplegia, while others’ paralysis is caused by stroke, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, or cerebral palsy. People who live with these conditions are quite often restricted to a wheelchair for mobility, due to the loss of the use of their legs. Those who are in a wheel chair don’t have many options available to them in order for them to move independently, especially someone who is paralyzed from the neck down and has lost the use of their arms in addition to their legs. There is the “sip and puff” technology, in which the chair is steered by breathing through a straw. Although this method works, it is not very comfortable; it is bulky and can often block the user’s face.
Researchers have now come up with a method they feel may be more comfortable by using a magnetic stud on a tongue ring and a headset with sensors that can pick up the signals from the tongue ring. This, of course, means that those individuals using this device would need to have their tongues pierced. The new tongue drive system was developed by Dr. Maysam Ghovanloo, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
To test out the equipment, 200 out of 20,000 applicants were selected. Martin Mireles, who has been paralyzed from a spinal injury for almost 20 years now, was recently fitted with the magnetic stud that allows him to steer his wheelchair. He was easily able to guide the wheelchair through an obstacle course lined with trash can, keeping his mouth closed and only needing to shift his tongue to travel in the correct direction.
Researchers chose to utilize the tongue in order to take advantage of some of the functions a severely disabled person still had. The tongue is a very strong muscle; it does not tire easily and is normally unaffected by spinal cord injuries, because it is directly connected to the brain through a cranial nerve. The magnet was first glued to the tongue, but often fell off after just a few hours. Dr. Anne Laumann, an associate professor of dermatology, suggested piercing.
“I think it’s great that something taboo can be used for therapeutic reasons,” Dr. Laumann said.