Even severely paralyzed people on respirators can do it: They can sniff. That is, they can at least partially control the movement of air through their nostrils. And if they can sniff, they can use this action to write on a computer screen or steer a wheelchair. That’s the principle behind a new device developed by Prof. Noam Sobel, students and electronics engineers in the Weizmann Institute’s Neurobiology Department.

After teaching healthy volunteers to play computer games using a “sniff control” in lieu of a mouse or joystick, the Weizmann team entered into collaboration with Dr Nachum Soroker at the Loewenstein Hospital Rehabilitation Center, taking their device to the hardest cases: quadriplegics and “locked-in” patients who have lost even the ability to speak. One locked-in patient used the device to communicate with her family for the first time since suffering a stroke seven months earlier. In another trial, after only 15 minutes of practice, a quadriplegic was able to steer his wheelchair around a challenging route. According to Sobel, learning to communicate by sniffing might be somewhat intuitive: Areas of the brain that control the movement of the soft palate, which directs airflow through the nostrils and mouth, overlap with areas for language.

Sniff control might come in handy for the non-disabled, as well: Sobel and his team envision “third hands” for pilots and surgeons that will be operated by sniffing.

Incidentally, in a second paper published in the same online issue of PNAS, another Weizmann neurobiologist, Dr. Elad Schneidman, teamed up with physicists at the University of Pennsylvania to investigate how the brain’s neural networks should organize to encode information optimally by achieving a balance between capacity and noise.

Comments

  1. #1 Adam
    July 27, 2010

    This is an excellent devolpment with enormous potential. It is hard to imagine this being intuitive and it seems that learning its system would more difficult than reported. What would the inhale/exhale combinations look for each letter of the alphabet, navigating with a wheelchair or controlling environmental settings (light switches, remotest, etc)? There could be countless combos. Also interesting is the ability of vent dependent patients to be able to sniff. I find this difficult, though not implausible, to do as many of these people have inflated tracheostomy cuffs preventing flow into the upper airway. Maybe they can direct some limited airflow between nasal and oral passages-enough to he picked up by sensors? I would like to see video of this in action!

  2. #2 Weizmann Science Writer
    July 27, 2010

    They have actually created a passive system for patients on respirators. Clearly some patients take longer to learn the system than others, but at least one wrote a message that it’s easier to use than systems based on blinking.

  3. #3 Prada handbags
    September 14, 2010

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    Blogging at LabSpaces-like blogging anywhere-I have a core readership, most of whom (I think) have followed me over. I’ve picked up some additional exposure and commenters. The hulabaloo regarding logins is a moot point from the blogging end. Anyone can comment (even anonymously) without creating an account.

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