July 28, 2010

Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Recently, Professor Noam Sobel, electronics engineers Dr. Anton Plotkin and Aharon Weissbrod and research student Lee Sela of the Weizmann Institute's Neurobiology Department, have invented a device that could allow persons with disabilities to navigate wheelchairs or communicate simply by inhaling and exhaling through the nose. In addition, this sniffing technology could be useful in assisting health surgeons or pilots perform certain procedures as their nose could act as a third hand.

How exactly can our breaths achieve such feats? “The new system identifies changes in air pressure inside the nostrils and translates these into electrical signals.” Testing was completed with volunteers and quadriplegics and results proved to be very promising. The subjects were able to manoeuvre a wheelchair or play a computer game with as much ease and precision as with a mouse or joystick.
Sniffing is a precise motor skill that is controlled, in part, by the soft palate […] the soft palate is controlled by several nerves that connect to it directly through the braincase. This close link led Sobel and his scientific team to theorize that the ability to sniff -- that is, to control soft palate movement -- might be preserved even in the most acute cases of paralysis. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) lent support to the idea, showing that a number of brain areas contribute to soft palate control. This imaging revealed a significant overlap between soft palate control and the language areas of the brain, hinting to the scientists that the use of sniffing to communicate might be learned intuitively.
From this theory, a device that measures changes in air pressure was created with a sensor that fits into the opening of the nostrils. Furthermore, an alternate version that diverts air into the nostrils was produced for patients on respirators. Interestingly, roughly 75% of those on respirators could control and operate the device.

Still, the most striking is that individuals with locked-in syndrome, a state in which their cognitive functions are intact but their bodies are completely paralyzed so that they are “locked” inside their bodies, were able to communicate effectively with their loved ones on account of this new invention. Finally, these patients were able to share their thoughts and feelings with their families for the first time in a very long time.
“One patient who had been locked in for seven months following a stroke learned to use the device over a period of several days, writing her first message to her family. Another, who had been locked in since a traffic accident 18 years earlier wrote that the new device was much easier to use than one based on blinking. Another ten patients, all quadriplegics, succeeded in operating a computer and writing messages through sniffing.”
Moreover, wheelchair navigation can be done effortlessly with this technology. A certain number of inhales or exhales instruct the chair to navigate in certain directions. Two successive sniffs will make the wheelchair advance forward and two exhales will reverse the chair. One inhale followed by an exhale will steer to the left, while an exhale followed by an inhale steers to the right.

Consequently, the technology has received such acclaim that four of the research subjects are still using the device to communicate. Researchers’ claim that this system is fairly inexpensive to manufacture, not to mention easy for people to learn and operate in comparison to other types of similar technology already in use. Yeda Research and Development Company are currently looking to develop and distribute the technology to the general public, therefore it may not be long until this technology is put to good use.

Invention Enables People With Disabilities Communicate and Steer a Wheelchair by Sniffing

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I have an educational background is in Psychology and Sociology. In addition, I have worked with many diverse individuals of all ages, with varying degrees of mental and/or physical illness. I enjoy following current news and research that impacts my area of expertise.

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