Wheelchair Tongue

November 28, 2013 by  

Wheelchair Tongue, To drive his motorized wheelchair, Jason DiSanto must make a sucking sound or exhale quickly. His “sip-and-puff” chair responds to four commands he delivers with his breath.

But the commands aren’t intuitive, and the straw that relays his orders needs regular cleaning and sits in front of his mouth. “Not only do (people) see me in a wheelchair, but I’ve got a thing covering my face – that’s another kind of strike against me,” says DiSanto, 39, of Atlanta, who hasn’t been able to move anything below his shoulders since a diving accident four years ago.

DiSanto is much more enthusiastic about a wheelchair he’s helping to develop at the Georgia Institute of Technology, which responds to commands from the user’s tongue.

A headset interprets the movements of a magnet embedded in his tongue (like the tongue piercings some people get) and relays them to a program on his cellphone, which drives the wheelchair forward or back, right or left.

The tongue-directed wheelchair is easier to manipulate and allows for faster driving than the sip-and-puff version, according to a small study of 11 disabled patients and 23 healthy ones released this week in Science Translational Medicine. The same system also works to control a mouse cursor, flick the lights or TV set on and off, and change the thermostat in his house.

“The more functionality I have from different devices, the less dependent I am on people to do those tasks for me, so I gain that sense of independence I lost due to my injury,” says DiSanto, who still works full time as an electrical engineer.

Maysam Ghovanloo, the Georgia Tech biomedical engineer leading the development of the Tongue Drive System, says his device is distinct because it travels with the patient rather than the chair. If someone who uses a sip-and-puff system wants to control a computer mouse from bed, they can’t use the one on their wheelchair, but they could with this new system.

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