Tongue-Controlled Wheelchair Performs Well In Clinical Trials
November 29, 2013

Tongue-Controlled Wheelchairs Three-Times Faster Than Sip-and-Puff Models

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A clinical trial that pitted a new type of tongue-controlled wheelchair against traditional sip-and-puff models has demonstrated that the former could offer paralyzed men and women more independence than the latter. Sip and puff systems use a straw mounted to the wheelchair to execute four basic commands to drive the chair.

The study, which appears in the latest edition of the journal Science Translational Medicine, demonstrated that individuals using the tongue-controlled technology were able to access computers and execute commands far more quickly than those in the traditional sup-and-puff wheelchair – and without sacrificing accuracy in the process.

In a statement, the Georgia Institute of Technology (one of the institutions involved with the research) claimed that this was the first paper to show that the wireless and wearable Tongue Drive System can outperform sip-and-puff technology, which is currently the most popular form of assistive technology for controlling wheelchairs for those with very limited mobility.

“The Tongue Drive System is controlled by the position of the user's tongue,” the university explained. “A magnetic tongue stud lets them use their tongue as a joystick to drive the wheelchair. Sensors in the tongue stud relay the tongue's position to a headset, which then executes up to six commands based on the tongue position.”

The new system is promising for tetraplegics or quadriplegics, individuals who have lost the use of their arms and legs, investigators from Georgia Tech, the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and Northwestern University said. The research was funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering and the National Science Foundation.

“It's really easy to understand what the Tongue Drive System can do and what it is good for,” explained principal investigator Maysam Ghovanloo, an associate professor in the Georgia Tech School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Now, we have solid proof that people with disabilities can potentially benefit from it.”

[ Watch the Video: Tongue-Controlled Wheelchair Outperforms Sip-and-Puff Wheelchairs ]

“The Tongue Drive System is a novel technology that empowers people with disability to achieve maximum independence at home and in the community by enabling them to drive a power wheelchair and control their environment in a smoother and more intuitive way,” added co-lead investigator Dr. Elliot Roth, chair of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “The opportunity to use this high-tech innovation to improve the quality of life among people with mobility limitations is very exciting.”

Ghovanloo, Roth and their associates instructed study participants to complete a series of tasks described as commonly featured in these types of clinical trials. At the conclusion of the study, the researchers said that all participants favored the Tongue Drive System over their currently-used form of assistive technology, and that the new technology allowed them to better engage the environment around them.

“Researchers compared how able-bodied subjects were able to execute commands either with the Tongue Drive System or with a keypad and mouse,” the university explained. “For example, targets randomly appeared on a computer screen and the subjects had to move the cursor to click on the target. Scientists are able to calculate how much information is transferred from a person's brain to the computer as they perform a point-and-click task.”

Throughout the course of the trial, the performance gap between the keypad and mouse method and the Tongue Drive System narrowed, the researchers said. Furthermore, they were able to demonstrate that individuals with tetraplegia were able to maneuver their wheelchairs better with the Tongue Drive System than with the sip-and-puff system. On average, the new system was found to be three times faster than the current method, and despite the fact that many patients had years of experience using sip-and-puff systems, the accuracy levels were the same.

“That was a very exciting finding. It attests to how quickly and accurately you can move your tongue… We saw a huge, very significant improvement in their performance from session one to session two. That’s an indicator of how quickly people learn this,” Ghovanloo said, adding that while the new system is not yet ready for commercial release, his startup company, Bionic Sciences, is working alongside the researchers to advance the technology.