At the TCNL, we use the principle of neuroplasticity to guide all of our research. Neuroplasticity is the amazing ability of the brain to reorganize. It is the process that allows all learning, training, and rehabilitation to occur. While not a clinic, our research is dedicated to finding new ways to assist the brain with re-learning after injury or illness and improving the quality of life of those affected.
Sensory substitution, one of our main areas of research, is using one human sense to receive and process information normally communicated by a different sense. A perfect example of sensory substitution is a person who is blind learning to read Braille. We focus on the research and development of devices that use the tactile sense (touch) to substitute for loss of vision, balance control, hearing, and situational awareness.
Neuromodulation is another emphasis of our research. The brain processes information by communicating between brain cells, called neurons. Neurons talk to each other using chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neuromodulation is the process of regulating this communication between neurons, and we use external touch to enhance this process.
Earlier experiments by the TCNL’s founder focused on using touch sensations on the fingertips or abdomen as a way to send visual messages to the brain. For example, he collaborated on developing a glove that allowed visually impaired individuals to read a computer screen. He 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, Paul explored the tongue as a unique, yet powerful, receptor for touch. In collaboration with Kurt Kaczmarek and Mitchell Tyler, he developed the Tongue Display Unit (TDU) that delivers signals to the brain. His tongue unit has helped blind people see images and has helped balance-impaired individuals regain vestibular control.
Led by Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita, we designed the first prototype of a device that allowed one to stimulate different areas of the brain by placing electrodes on a person's tongue. A new company, called Wicab, was established in order to manufacture and market this device and make it available for private purchasing. Today, Wicab is a privately owned company, separate from the TCNL laboratory.
We probe the limits of human performance in both healthy and impaired states to understand the underlying neural mechanisms. We conduct basic and applied research that will contribute to neurorehabilitation. Our long-term goal is to significantly improve and maintain brain function in individuals who suffer from sensory or motor disorders. We work to improve upon existing therapies and establish new regimens for conditions that presently have few or no options. Our aim is to enhance the rehabilitation process by strengthening and encouraging the changing brain.
Our research has far-reaching applications that go beyond therapeutic interventions. Sensory substitution devices can be useful in the defense field, such as tools that provide underwater orientation for Navy SEALs. There are technical applications that help surgeons to maintain a more precise position with the scalpel during surgery. Our technology can be used as exploration tools like the NASA glove that allows astronauts to feel small objects even while wearing a bulky glove. The possibilities of our research are endless, limited only by the scope of imagination.