When Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita was recruited to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he establi­shed a research program called the Tactile Display Laboratory. Over the years, the program ex­panded its scope and has evolved to become the current Tactile Communication and Neuro­rehabilitation Laboratory (TCNL), a center for the study and application of neuroplasticity.

In the 1990’s, our experiments focused on using touch sensations on the fingertips as a way to send visual messages to the brain. For example, we developed a glove that allowed visually im­paired individuals to read a computer screen. We developed gloves to help people with limi­ted skin sensation, such as individuals with leprosy, to touch and feel with their hands. In the late 1990’s, we explored the tongue as a unique, yet powerful, receptor for touch, and we deve­loped the Tongue Display Unit (TDU) that delivers electric signals to the brain. The TDU has helped blind people see images and balance-impaired people regain vestibular control.

Electrode Array from Original Tongue Display Unit (TDU)

The TCNL successfully designed the first prototype of a device that stimulates the brain with help of electrodes placed on the tongue. A new company, called Wicab, Inc, was established in order to manufacture and market this device, and make it available for private purchasing. The core technology underlying BrainPort™ originated at the TCNL. BrainPort™ is now a registered trademark of Wicab, Inc. for devices developed and marketed to treat balance and vision dis­orders, under license from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Today, Wicab, Inc. is a priva­tely owned company, separate from the TCNL laboratory.

We hope to miniaturize the entire tongue stimulation apparatus so that it fits into a small mouth­piece similar to a dental retainer, with the tongue electrode array, stimulation circuitry, and batte­ries self-contained. An FM radio receiver incorporated into the retainer would receive data from an external source, so that no wires would need to go into the mouth. This minia­turization is technically feasible and represents an engineering rather than a scientific challenge.

Paul Bach-y-Rita

Dr. Bach-y-Rita was a pio­neer in the field of neuro­plasticity. His revolutionary research proved that the human brain is capable of changing itself and led to his progressive approach to the study and treatment of many sensory and neu­rological disorders.

Paul's First Project

Based on the work by the late Paul Bach-y-Rita and colleagues at the Smith-Kettlewell Institute of Visual Sciences in the 1960s. The definitive word on this work can be found in the book Brain Mechanisms in Sensory Substitution by Paul Back-y-Rita, New York: Academic, 1972. The image above is an artist's rendering of that historic system.

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