Share This Page

Intuitive wheelchair offers taste of freedom

| Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013, 8:48 p.m.

WASHINGTON — An experimental device is letting paralyzed people drive wheelchairs simply by flicking their tongue in the right direction.

Key to this wireless system: Users get their tongue pierced with a magnetic stud that resembles jewelry and acts like a joystick, in hopes of offering them more mobility and independence.

Researchers reported on Wednesday that 11 people paralyzed from the neck down rapidly learned to use the tongue device to pilot their wheelchairs through an obstacle course full of twists and turns, and to operate a computer, too.

“It's really powerful because it's so intuitive,” said Jason DiSanto, 39, of Atlanta, who was among the first spinal cord-injured patients to get his tongue pierced for science and try out the system. “The first time I did it, people thought I was driving for, like, years.”

The team of researchers in Atlanta and Chicago put the Tongue Drive System to the test against one of the most widely used assistive technologies, called sip-and-puff, that users operate by breathing into a straw. Using the tongue, patients operated their wheelchairs a bit faster but just as accurately — and on average, they performed about three times better on video game-like computer tests, said lead researcher Maysam Ghovanloo, director of Georgia Tech's bionics lab.

The research, reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine, is an early step that allowed use of the device only inside laboratories. Larger studies in real-world conditions are required before the device ever could be sold. And the tongue piercing may be a turn-off for some potential users, the researchers acknowledge.

But the work is attracting attention from specialists who say there's a big need for more assistive technologies so they can customize care for the severely disabled.

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

Here's how the system works: A headset detects the tongue's position when the user flicks that magnetic stud. Touch a spot on the right bottom tooth to go right, for example. The headset wirelessly beams that information to a smartphone the user carries. An app then sends the command to move the wheelchair or the computer cursor.

Why the tongue? “It's unobstrusive, easy to use and flexible,” said Ghovanloo, a biomedical engineer who created the system and has started a company that is working with Georgia Tech to commercialize it.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.