People with spinal cord injuries can successfully drive a powered wheelchair and even maneuver curves, using tongue movements, according to the results of a recently completed clinical trial.
"This clinical trial has validated that the Tongue Drive system is intuitive and quite simple for individuals with high-level spinal cord injuries to use," said Maysam Ghovanloo, lead author of the study and assistant professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
He says that participants in his study were able to easily remember and correctly issue tongue commands to play computer games and drive a powered wheelchair around an obstacle course with very little prior training.
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At the annual conference of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) on June 26, the researchers reported the results of the first five clinical trial participants to use the Tongue Drive system.
The trial was conducted at the Shepherd Center, an Atlanta-based catastrophic care hospital, and funded by the National Science Foundation and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.
The study tested the ability of these individuals with tetraplegia, as a result of high-level spinal cord injuries (cervical vertebrae C3-C5), to perform tasks related to computer access and wheelchair navigation using only their tongue movements.
At the beginning of each trial, Ghovanloo and graduate students Xueliang Huo and Chih-wen Cheng attached a small magnet the size of a grain of rice to the participant's tongue with tissue adhesive. Movement of this magnetic tracer was detected by an array of magnetic field sensors mounted on wireless headphones worn by the study participants. The sensor output signals were wirelessly transmitted to a portable computer, which was carried on the wheelchair.
The signals were processed to determine the relative motion of the magnet with respect to the array of sensors in real-time. This information was then used to control the movements of the cursor on a computer screen or to substitute for the joystick function in a powered wheelchair.
Details on use of the Tongue Drive for wheeled mobility were published in the June 2009 issue of the journal IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering.
Why Choose the Tongue?
Ghovanloo 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.