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.