This Wheelchair Is Controlled By a Paralyzed Patient’s Tongue

The next step, the researchers say, is to move the system outside of the lab and hospital and into the real-world environment for testing

Paralyzed patient Jason Disanto
Paralyzed patient Jason Disanto navigates through a room full of obstacles by guiding the wheelchair with his tongue. Shepherd Center

Patients suffering from severe paralysis may soon enjoy a greater degree of freedom in navigating through the world. A new technology called the Tongue Drive System allows patients to control their wheelchair with the flick of their tongue. In trials, this new system has outperformed existing technologies—which rely on patients sipping and puffing air through a straw to control their wheelchairs—in speed and matched their accuracy.

In order to work the new system, patients must get a tongue piercing. That stud is magnetic and essentially acts like a joystick for controlling direction, the researchers describe. Science elaborates on how it works:

When users flick the magnetic barbell, the magnetic field around their mouth is altered. Changes in the magnetic field are picked up by four small sensors on a headset, which relays information wirelessly to an iPod carried by the user. The iPod detects the users’ tongue commands, and sends them to target devices, such as a powered wheelchair, or even a computer on which users can move a cursor simply by moving their tongue.

Clinical trials with the Tongue Drive System involved 11 paralyzed patients and 23 able-bodied volunteers. For the latter group, the researchers compared those participant’s ability to accurately navigate computer-based obstacles and activities using both the new tongue-based system and a touch screen. Comparing those two tasks allowed the researchers to determine the learning curb associated with using the tongue-based system, and they found that participants became more adept at using it as they gained practice, with improvements showing up within 30 minutes.

The paralyzed patients attempted using the tongue-based system straight away, and they soon maneuvered through obstacles three times faster on average than they did with existing technologies, despite sometimes having years of experience with those older technologies. “We saw a huge, very significant improvement in their performance from session one to session two,” the researchers said in a statement. “That’s an indicator of how quickly people learn this.”

The next step, they say, is to move the system outside of the lab and hospital and into the real-world environment for testing.

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