Saturday, June 11, 2011

Tongue Piercing Aids Spinal Cord Injured

CHICAGO — Martin Mireles says his mother was not happy with his tongue piercing: It didn’t fit his image as a former church youth leader.

But as Mr. Mireles told her, it was for research. Paralyzed from a spinal cord injury since he was shot in the neck almost two decades ago, he was recently fitted with a magnetic stud that allows him to steer his wheelchair with his tongue.

Now he is helping researchers at the Northwestern University School of Medicine here in a clinical trial of the technology, being financed with almost $1 million in federal stimulus funds.

Mr. Mireles, 37, tested the equipment one recent afternoon by guiding a wheelchair through an obstacle course lined with trash cans. Mouth closed, he shifted the magnet to travel forward and backward, left and right.

The study was one of about 200 projects selected from more than 20,000 applicants.

“There was a ‘wow’ factor here,” said Naomi Kleitman, a program director at the National Institutes of Health and an expert on spinal cord injury research. “This is kind of a cool idea. The question is: Will it work well enough not to just be cool, but to be practical too?”

A quarter-million Americans have severe spinal cord injuries, and experts estimate that there are about 10,000 new injuries each year. Millions more have some form of paralysis from an array of conditions, including stroke, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy.

Wheelchair users do have several options now, including the “sip and puff” technology, used by the actor Christopher Reeve before his death in 2004, in which the chair is steered by breathing through a straw.

But Maysam Ghovanloo, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, wanted to create a technology that would be more aesthetically pleasing — without a straw obscuring the face — and more intuitive for users, with better control and greater flexibility.

After working on the tongue drive system for about five years, Dr. Ghovanloo is now conducting the clinical trials with Northwestern, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.

To operate the system, the user wears a headset with sensors that pick up magnetic signals from the tongue ring. Moving the tongue to the mouth’s upper left corner, for instance, moves the wheelchair forward. (The researchers hope that in the future, touching each tooth could signal a different command, from turning on the television to answering the phone to opening a door.)


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