Tongue piercing allows the paralyzed to steer wheelchairs

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Turns out tongue piercings are more than a fashion statement, they may allow patients paralyzed from the neck down to control their wheelchairs.

According to new research published in Science Translational Medicine, the experimental device will give mobility to people confined by paralysis to wheelchairs by simply flicking their tongue in the right direction.

Jeonghee Kim and Maysam Ghovanloo along with their team from the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology have created a new navigation system for powered wheelchairs that uses a headset and a barbell tongue piercing to steer the chair about.

People with tetraplegia (paralysis of all four limbs) in clinical trials were able to perform tasks three times as quickly and with the same accuracy as with the other technologies available like sip-and-puff system.

“There is absolutely no difference between the tongue piercing you need for this device and the one you get at your local tattoo parlor,” said Dr Maysam Ghovanloo. “The only difference is we’ve replaced the jewelry with a small magnet.”

Working of the TDS
The “Tongue Drive System” (TDS), works by using sensors located just outside the person’s cheeks to track the movement of the magnetic tongue piercing. Signals from the sensors are picked up by a smartphone and the tongue commands detected are sent to a powered wheelchair.

“We are tapping in to the inherent capabilities of the tongue, it is such an amazing part of the body,” explained Dr Maysam Ghovanloo.

TDS tested on 23 able-bodied and 11 paralyzed subjects
The efficacy of the technology was tested in 23 able-bodied and 11 paralyzed participants. As a part of the study, all the subjects got custom-made titanium barbell piercings.

It was noted that after a training session of about half an hour all the 33 participants were able to use the navigation system and their performance improved over several weeks. Researchers found that they could play video games, dial phone numbers and steer the wheelchair through an obstacles by flicking their tongues.

Though the TDS shows promise it may take a couple of years for it to become a commercial reality. When it does, the technology is likely to cost between $6,000 and $7,000.

Paul Tobin, president and CEO of the United Spinal Association, an advocacy group for people with spinal cord injuries stated, “I think it’s an incredible opportunity to provide a higher level of independence. The device is much more versatile and sensitive, so it provides much greater levels of accuracy for driving a power chair.”

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