Sniff Once for "Yes": New Neurobiology Papers

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.

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In the interest of full disclosure, I currently blog at LabSpaces. Hopefully what I'm about to say won't get me voted off the island, so to speak.

You are absolutely right, Isis, regading community aspects of the blogosphere. It's one of those things that sprung up because of the people-not the platform-involved. I was blogging for a year before I moved to LabSpaces, and I was connecting with other bloggers through other channels before I knew anything about LabSpaces.

Blogging networks/collectives might promote more interaction between bloggers there than would occur if we were all flying solo. The forum aspect at LabSpaces has certainly prompted less visible chatter, ribbing, and shenanigans among the bloggers. Would that still happen over email and/or twitter in its absence? Maybe-I really don't know.

I respect what Brian's trying to do in trying to engage non-blogger commenters, to give them a space to share their opinions or info, and to promote science literacy and discussion. No offense intended to Brian, but I think the jury's still out here-then again, that opinions based on my personal usage of the site, which is heavily weighted on blogging and a select few forums (because even as a postdoc with no life I don't have the time to keep up with everything going on there). The whole "facebook for science" is semantics. Honestly I don't even use the real Facebook that often, for many of the same reasons I don't use the fb4sci sites that I have accounts for.
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.

Just like with blogging, forum discussions also have a core of readers/commenters, regardless of login requirements. If poeple are interested enough to login and leave a post on a thread, awesome. If someone doesn't want to create a login for this, meh-there are other ways to connect and voice opinions. If it promotes discussion somewhere, then, in my opinion, it's achieving at least part of its intended goal.

Sorry for getting a little long winded.

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!

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.