These days tongue-piercings are not just fashion accessories in certain circles. They can also be used by quadriplegic users to operate wheelchairs! Scientists have developed a new navigational system for powered wheelchairs, by which patients use a magnetic tongue-piercing for steering the chair around (according to new research published in Science Translational Medicine journal, November 2013).
Known as the "Tongue Drive System", the technology works through sensors which are positioned near the driver's cheeks to track the movement of the tongue-piercing, through its magnetic properties. The headset detects the position of the tongue when the user flicks the magnetic stud. Signals from the sensors are picked up by a smartphone, which then transmits them to a powered wheelchair. In essence, what happens is that the driver's tongue becomes the joystick through which they drive the wheelchair. Apparently there is no difference between the tongue-piercing used in this device, and the ones people get at tattoo parlours, the only real distinction being that the jewellery has been replaced with a small magnet.
In the course of the clinical trials, it emerged that paralysed people were able to steer their wheelchairs much faster and just as accurately using the Tongue Drive technology than those using the current most popular technology, where the person steers the chair by sipping or puffing into a straw. Participants in the trial reported that this system was more intuitive and less cumbersome than the sip-and-puff system. For example, you roll your tongue to the left for a left-turn or to the right for a right-turn, and the wheelchair turns in that direction, in contrast to taking a soft sip for a left turn or a soft puff for a right turn. It appears that this new device could replace the sip-and-puff devices currently being used by 10 000 to 15 000 quadriplegics in the US today. It is said to be more sensitive and versatile so could provide a higher level of independence for this group of people, since it provides greater accuracy in driving a powered chair.
As long as the operator can move their tongue consistently and reliably they should be able to operate this device, since the tongue is directly connected to the brain, which means that even those with severe injuries to the spinal cord can usually move their tongues. Additionally the brain offers a great deal of room to manoeuvre to the tongue, similar to the hands and fingers, which means that multiple complex movements can be made.
This device is probably a couple of years away from going on the market, if it gets US Food and Drug Association approval, and is likely to cost around $6000-7000.
The best thing about it is that it never needs to be replaced, as it is a simple magnet. The only real drawback to it is that the user has to get his/her tongue pierced, which can be painful and problematic.
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Picture courtesy of www.easystand.com