A tongue drive system that fits inside a dental retainer could improve mobility for people with high-level spinal cord injuries. Credit: Maysam Ghovanloo; Georgia Institute of Technology.

An innovative alliance between body piercing, orthodontics and electronics could give people with high-level spinal cord injuries much more ability to interact with the world.

The “Tongue Drive System” was developed by associate professor, Maysam Ghovanloo, of Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The system is based on a wireless device that allows people to use computers and maneuver wheelchairs by moving a tiny magnet attached to a tongue stud to different regions of the mouth that are outfitted with sensors.

According to a story on Tech’s website, an appliance similar to an orthodontic retainer contains magnetic field sensors on its four corners that detect movements of the tongue magnet. The sensors send signals wirelessly to an iPod or iPhone that has software to convert the magnet positions into cursor movements on a computer or joystick movements for a powered wheelchair. Ghovanloo and his team were able to fit the lithium battery-powered circuitry into the space available in the retainer, which he says in the story, gives the device “increased mechanical stability and comfort that is nearly unnoticeable.”

The system offers other advantages. Its signal-to-noise ratio gives it an improved sensivitity over earlier versions, which could allow the device to be programmed with as many commands as a user could remember. The ability to program commands is a big improvement over current “sip-n-puff” devices that are simple switches controlled by sucking or blowing through a straw.

Ghovanloo presented his work and demonstrated the system in February at the IEEE International Solid-State Conference in San Francisco. Researchers will begin testing the system on able-bodied subjects soon and have already started prequalifying candidates with high-level spinal cord injuries for further testing.

The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes for Health and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.