Here's how the system works: A headset detects the tongue's position when the user flicks that magnetic stud. Touch a spot on the right bottom tooth to go right, for example. The headset wirelessly beams that information to a smartphone the user carries. An app then sends the command to move the wheelchair or the computer cursor.
Why the tongue? "It's unobstrusive, easy to use and flexible," said Ghovanloo, a biomedical engineer who created the system and has started a company that is working with Georgia Tech to commercialize it.
Most people with spinal cord injuries — or neurologic diseases that also can paralyze — still can move the tongue. It doesn't require special concentration. The tongue is pretty tireless. And the amount of real estate the brain's motor cortex dedicates to the tongue and mouth rivals that of the fingers and hand, offering multiple complex movements, Ghovanloo said. He led the team of researchers from Atlanta's Shepherd Center for spinal injuries, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University.
DiSanto, an electrical engineer who became paralyzed from the neck down in a 2009 diving accident, said the headset is less intrusive than the sip-and-puff device that he normally uses, which requires a straw-like tube to be worn in front of his face. More important, he said, the tongue drive gave him more control, allowing him to move diagonally, for example.
As for the piercing, "there is some getting used to it," said DiSanto, who got his in 2011. It took about a week to heal, and speaking and eating felt funny initially but he got used to the sensation.
It's not for everyone. The current study tested the device in 23 able-bodied participants and 11 paralyzed volunteers. By study's end, all of the disabled volunteers preferred the tongue system to their regular assistive device, said co-author Joy Bruce, who heads the Shepherd Center's spinal cord injury lab. But patients who were older or worried that a tongue stud wasn't acceptable in their profession decided against participating.