Scientists believe that body piercings can control wheelchairs and computers which can transform the way people interact after paralysis.
Through the movement of a tiny magnet in tongue piercing sensors are able to detect and then convert the movements into commands which are able to control a range of devices.
A team at the Georgia Institute of Technology had made the leap from body are to wheelchairs because of the suppleness of the tongue. The team said it was harnessing the tongue’s “amazing” deftness.
A large section of the brain is dedicated to controlling the tongue due to its role in speech. It is also unaffected by spinal cord injuries that can render the rest of the body paralysed due to its own hotline to the brain, reports the BBC.
“We are tapping in to the inherent capabilities of the tongue, it is such an amazing part of the body,” Dr Maysam Ghovanloo told the BBC.
The lentil-sized piercing in the tongue produces a magnetic field which changes as the tongue moves. Sensors on the cheeks are than able to detect the precise position of the piercing.
A trial looked at 23 able-bodied people and 11 with tetraplegia, six positions in the mouth were programmed to control a wheelchair or a computer, such a touching the left check to turn the chair left.
The results revealed that on average people with tetraplegia were able to perform the tasks three times as fast and with the same level of accuracy as with the technologies available.
Researchers believe that they will be able to have a command for every tooth in the mouth and by using combinations of tongue positions will be able to develop an “unlimited” number of instructions. These could dial a phone or change the channel on the TV.
Dr Ghovanloo said: “People will be able to do more and do more things more effectively.”
The device is currently limited to university laboratories and the team is trying to fit the sensors into a dental brace to make it more stable on the road. They are also trying to get it approved by US regulators and develop a way of getting the expensive kit into the hands of patients.
Dr Mark Bacon, the director of research at the charity Spinal Research, said the ultimate goal remained regenerating the spinal cord but living aids were “needed now”.
He told the BBC: “While this may only be beneficial to those with the profoundest motor dysfunction, being able to capture the tongue’s complex range of motion to command other assistive devices seems a valuable avenue to explore. After all the tongue is capable of the most exquisite commands through the act of speech so why not use that range of motion to command assistive devices more discretely. We should bear in mind that the tongue does other things and a smooth and safeguarded mechanism to ensure against potentially dangerous engagement whilst eating, speaking or even swallowing may not be trivial.”
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