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New tongue technology operates wheelchairs

January 26, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
New technology allows quadriplegics with spinal cord injuries to maneuver their powered wheelchairs by using their tongues.Georgia Institute of Technology developed the so-called "Tongue Drive System."

The clinical trial tested the ability of people with high-level spinal cord injuries to perform tasks related to computer access and wheelchair navigation using only their tongues.

Before using the Tongue Drive System, people participating in the clinical trial trained the computer to understand how they would like to move their tongues to indicate different commands.

Participants used headsets and a magnet attached to their tongues, which works like a computer mouse.

A unique set of specific tongue movements was tailored for each person based on the user's abilities and preferences.

Patients first tried out the movements on computer games.

For the first test, the user issued commands to move the mouse left and right. Using these commands, each person played a computer game that required moving a paddle horizontally to prevent a ball from hitting the bottom of the screen.

After adding the up and down commands, the participants were then asked to move the mouse cursor through an on-screen maze as quickly and accurately as possible.

Then researchers added two more commands -- single and double mouse clicks.

Following the computer sessions, the participants were then allowed to give the wheelchairs a few test drives around an obstacle course which contained 10 turns and was longer than a professional basketball court.

"Trial participants 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," said Maysam Ghovanloo, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech in a news release.

The trial was held at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a private non-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury and brain injury.