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27 July 2010

'Sniffing' Technology Helps Disabled Move, Communicate

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Doctors in Israel have developed a unique “sniffing” controller that allows people with severe disabilities to use their noses to write, surf the Web, and even navigate their wheelchairs.

The new technology might even be used in the future to create a sort of 'third hand' to assist healthy surgeons or pilots.

The device uses a “sniffing technology” that measures pressure changes in the nose from breathing in and out, and then translates these changes to electrical signals.

When tested on both healthy and quadriplegic volunteers, the system was easily mastered, with users easily able to drive a wheelchair around a complex path or play a computer game with nearly the same speed and accuracy of a mouse or joystick.

“The most stirring tests were those we did with locked-in syndrome patients. These are people with unimpaired cognitive function who are completely paralyzed – 'locked into' their bodies,” said Noam Sobel, a professor of neurobiology at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel.

“With the new system, they were able to communicate with family members, and even initiate communication with the outside. Some wrote poignant messages to their loved ones, sharing with them, for the first time in a very long time, their thoughts and feelings.”

Sobel worked with other scientists from the Weizmann Institute and the Sackler faculty of medicine at Tel Aviv University to develop the new system.

The soft palate, the flexible divider that moves to direct air in or out through the mouth or nose, is controlled by cranial nerves that are "always very well conserved following severe injury," Sobel told the AFP news agency.

"That's why eye blinks can be used to communicate with severely injured people -- because eye blinks are also controlled by cranial nerves.”

Since sniffing is a precise motor skill that is controlled, in part, by the soft palate, Sobel and his team theorized that the ability to sniff, or to control soft palate movement, might also be preserved even in the most acute cases of paralysis.


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