Sniffing Brilliant

August 20, 2010

Rheanna Sand

Medicine is a strange realm. You can survive a16-floor plunge, or get a face transplant, but the best method we have to communicate with the severely brain damaged is "blink once for yes, twice for no." That is, until a group of Israeli researchers decided to build sniff controllers.

Yes - Anton Plotkin and colleagues have built machines that convert sniffs into electrical signals. They guessed, correctly, that the ability to sniff would remain intact following injury because the area responsible for sniffing, the soft palate, has multiple cranial nerves coming into it. So, they built different types of sniff controllers to test on patients, both quadriplegic and with locked-in syndrome, with stunning results.

For quadriplegics, they designed a motorized wheelchair that responds to sniff codes: "two sniffs in" for forward, "two sniffs out" for backward, "sniffs out then in" for left, "sniffs in then out" for right. In the picture below, you can see tracks from 10 healthy individuals in black, meandering from possible giggling fits, and the steady orange track of the quadriplegic who took part.


Blog by Rheanna Sand

Not only does this technology give disabled people better mobility, it can free people from the prison of their own mind. One woman who had suffered a stroke, who was completely locked in with no way to communicate, was given a chance to reach out for the first time. After 19 days of sniff training, using nothing but her soft palate and word selection software, she wrote her first meaningful post-stroke communication, which contained, as the authors state, "a profound personal message to her family." That and, I imagine, a desperate plea to scratch that itch on her forehead.

So, until brain-computer interfaces become a cheap, accessible reality to the majority of sufferers, medicine could and should turn to innovations like this to free people from the prisons of brain damage and spinal cord injury.



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