Research now underway at the UW is holding hope for many people with physical disabilities, from quadriplegics to the blind. A device is now being developed at the university that would speak to the brain via the tongue, allowing patients to regain such senses as touch and sight.
The new device uses electrical impulses to send sensory information through the tongue to the brain. UW researchers are first looking to help people who have lost their sense of balance. Cheryl Schiltz of Cambria is set to be the first study subject to test the Tongue Display Unit. She said, “I could feel the sensations on my tongue telling me, ok I have to turn right or left, I have to go forward.”
Schiltz worked her way through a virtual maze with the help of the unit. It has more than 100 electrodes that send signals from the tongue to the brain to help her navigate.
Since 1997, Schiltz has been suffering with bilateral vestibular loss, which leaves her with no sense of balance. She described, “Every attempt you make with a step is altered by something moving under your feet, the walls, the floor, steps. We have no concept of what's up or down, sideways.”
Physical therapy has helped Schlitz some, but she sees the tongue display as her only hope to get back her life. “What we're proposing is an artificial sensor, an excelerameter which would be a device that senses change of direction or speed,” explained UW researcher Kurt Kaczmarek.
Researchers hope to develop a practical device, one that would be like a dental retainer, containing all of the miniaturized electronics. “The tongue is a wonderful surface,” said lead researcher Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita. “One, it's hidden in the mouth so you have the opportunity to build a completely cosmetic system.”
The tongue is also loaded with nerves and bathed by saliva, which is a good conductor. It would send the necessary signals to the brain that would help people like Schiltz regain her balance. “This could literally help me rediscover my life,” Schiltz said. “If this works, the very first thing I would do is run as fast as I can, just to feel the world under my feet again.”
UW Researchers say they are still years away from developing an actual dental device. They plan on starting to study a prototype this summer. Click here for more information on the study. To learn more about bilateral vestibualr loss, log onto www.wobblers.com.
Karyn Odway, NBC Wisconsin (Channel 15).