Tongue-Driven Device Aids Handicapped

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THURSDAY, July 3 (HealthDay News) -- A tongue drive system that enables severely disabled people to operate powered wheelchairs and to perform other tasks has been developed by engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

"This device could revolutionize the field of assistive technologies by helping individuals with severe disabilities, such as those with high-level spinal cord injuries, return to rich, active, independent and productive lives," Maysam Ghovanloo, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said in a prepared statement.

Users of the Tongue Drive system have a small magnet (the size of a grain of rice) attached to their tongue by implantation, piercing or tissue adhesive. The movement of the magnetic tracer attached to the tongue is detected by magnetic field sensors mounted on a headset outside the mouth or on an orthodontic brace inside the mouth. This movement data is transmitted to a portable computer carried on the user's clothing or wheelchair.

"We chose the tongue to operate the system, because unlike hands and feet, which are controlled by the brain through the spinal cord, the tongue is directly connected to the brain by a cranial nerve that generally escapes damage in severe spinal cord injuries or neuromuscular diseases," Ghovanloo said. "Tongue movements are also fast, accurate and do not require much thinking, concentration or effort."

The system can be programmed to recognize a user's specific tongue movements based on their abilities, oral anatomy, personal preferences and lifestyles.

"An individual could potentially train our system to recognize touching each tooth as a different command. The ability to train our system with as many commands as an individual can comfortably remember is a significant advantage over the common sip-n-puff device that acts as a simple switch controlled by sucking or blowing through a straw," Ghovanloo said.

The Tongue Drive system was described June 29 at the annual conference of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America, in Washington, D.C. An article about the system was expected to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development.

More information

The Alliance for Technology Access has more about assistive devices.