Quadriplegia, also known as tetraplegia, is a form of paralysis that affects the human body from the neck down, rendering a person's limbs and torso immobile. It's a physical condition that can paralyze a person's entire life, not just their body. After all, how can one function independently without being able to walk, move from a sitting to a standing position, or use their arms and hands to do simple things like brush their hair and feed themselves? The answer to that question lies in technology.
Modern medicine combined with advances in technology have provided tetraplegics with a progressively better quality of life through the years, but until recently, the only options that offered a degree of independence were limiting for the many quadriplegics whose respiratory systems were also compromised by their conditions. Before the development of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), the only FDA-approved technology involved either using a voice command system or a breathing apparatus to control the movements of wheelchairs. The problem with those options is that simply moving a few feet forward or backward can be an exhausting exercise for tetraplegics with limited lung capacity and a near impossibility for those with diminished voices. BCIs were developed for use in those situations, but they require such intense concentration to translate brain waves into the electrical signals needed to power a wheelchair that they're often useless in everyday life, where constant commotion and distractions abound. There are now BCIs that can be implanted in the brain for easier operation, but the process of inserting them risks damaging brain tissue.
The newest iteration of wheelchair control for quadriplegics is a quite simply amazing fusion of fashion and technology that's elevated the trend of tongue piercing into a life-changing phenomenon. With this latest advance in technology, a quadriplegic can utilize a headset, a small computer or smartphone, and a simple titanium barbell to move freely through the world.
How Tongue Piercing-Controlled Wheelchairs Work
Towards the end of 2013, researchers announced that they'd developed a way for a quadriplegic to use a small titanium barbell placed through the tongue like a joystick that can effectively control the movements of a wheelchair. This advance was dreamed up by engineer Maysam Ghovanloo and his team from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia. Early iterations involved placing magnets on the tongue, but they wouldn't stay in place. With a little creative thinking, Ghovanloo realized that he could combine his concept more effectively with the fashion trend of tongue piercing to give quadriplegics more control over their lives. After roughly 5 years of development and fine-tuning, he and his team perfected the system. Here's how it works:
A small, magnetic, titanium barbell inserted through the center of the tongue creates a magnetic field in a quadriplegic's mouth. Simply moving the tongue from side-to-side, forward or back, changes that magnetic field. A headset with 4 small sensors in it picks up on those changes and translates the movement to a small computer or smartphone that subsequently powers the quadriplegic's wheelchair in the direction they've indicated with the motion of their tongue.
This fashion-forward "independence system" can do much more than just power a wheelchair. It can be used to control a computer cursor and activities ranging from playing games to dialing phone numbers. The learning curve for using this new system is minimal, and it offers quadriplegics with the ability to do everything the "sip-and-puff" breathing-powered system previously allowed, but 3 times as fast and without taxing a quadriplegic's system nearly as much.
Setting Fashion-Forward Technology in Motion
To test and report on their advancement, Ghovanloo and his team prepared a study with 11 quadriplegics and 23 able-bodied participants who already had their tongues pierced. They provided the study participants with a 30-minute training session, at which point all of the participants were able to use their tongue piercings to maneuver around a computer screen and even play games. With just a day of practice a week over a six-week period, the participants could do much more--including powering their wheelchairs through obstacle courses--and at a progressively greater speed.
Subsequent improvements to the system have moved the technology previously placed in a headset into an in-mouth retainer that works with a tongue barbell and frees quadriplegics of the bulky, distracting headgear of the older sip-and-puff systems. It's also helping minimize the number of systems quadriplegics need to live more independently. Combined with existing home systems and smartphone apps, quadriplegics will be able to control the lights, heat/air, and appliances at home with more ease, and less cumbersome equipment, than ever before.
Ghovanloo's system is being further tested in Atlanta to see if quadriplegics can successfully use it to move about town, take public transportation, and go to work. Ghovanloo hopes to commercialize the device through his company, Bionic Sciences, over the next year, as long as he can raise the funds needed to develop it further.