Tongue piercing allows paralysed to operate wheelchairs from their mouth

The experimental device is less inconvenient than current systems and can be used just as accurately

Researchers in America have revealed an innovative device that gives paralysed individuals a new way to control their wheelchairs.

 A magnetic tongue piercing acts as a joystick, allowing the wearers to control their wheelchair using their tongue as a joystick.

The device was compared with the current leading assistive technology for the paralyzed known as the sip-and-puff.  Compared to this straw-like interface, the piercing was found to be just as accurate and a little bit faster.

"It's really powerful because it's so intuitive," said Jason DiSanto, a 39-year-old who was among the first spinal cord injury patients to try get his tongue pierced to put the system through its paces. "The first time I did it, people thought I was driving for, like, years."

The research was led by Maysam Ghovanloo, director of Georgia Tech's bionics lab, who oversaw the 11 testers as they used the device to navigate a specially designed obstacle course.

The piercing works in tandem with a headset, used to detect the position of the tongue. As the user moves their tongue in the mouth, the headset (and an associated app) then translates these movements into instructions for the wheelchair.

Ghovanloo, a biomedical engineer currently working with the Georgia Tech university to commercialise the system, said that he decided to use the tongue as a controller as it is “unobstrusive, easy to use and flexible.”

Paralyzed patient Jason Disanto pilots a wheelchair using the Tongue Drive System at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Image credit: Reuters.

Ghovanloo also noted that moving the tongue did not require any particular concentration and that as our brains dedicate nearly as much cerebral real estate to the tongue as they do our hands, allowing it a particularly expansive range of movements.

Dr. Brad Dicianno, a rehabilitation specialist uninvolved with the research from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, commented: “For people who have very limited ability to control a power wheelchair, there aren't that many options. There is some interesting promise for this tongue control.”

The study, reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine, found that all the volunteers in the study preferred the piercing to their regular device, but some individuals had dropped out of the tests, worrying that a piercing wasn’t suitable for their profession.

DiSanto also noted that the device took “some getting used to”; taking a week to heal and initially making eating and drinking an unusual experience.  Another participant reported that the piercing simply fell out.

Paralyzed patient Jason Disanto's tongue is pierced in order for him to pilot a wheelchair using the Tongue Drive System at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Image credit: Reuters.

The researchers though are enthusiastic about the device’s potential, and Ghovanloo has outlined plans to expand the software’s functionality, allowing users to also control their TV or lights with a flick of the tongue. He’s also worked to reduce the size of the headset, allowing to work as a dental retainer instead.

DiSanto is one of the users that has already signed up to the next round of testing. "Somebody that's in a wheelchair already has a stigma," he said.

"If there was something that could be developed to control my wheelchair and the environment around me, to make me more independent without having to have medical devices coming out of my mouth, it would be a huge benefit."

Additional reporting by the Associated Press

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