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Sniffing Can Help Communications and Steer Wheelchairs

A new health gadget will allow disabled persons steer their wheelchairs or communicate with loved ones through sniffing-inhaling and exhaling through the nose.

Professor Noam Sobel, engineers Dr. Anton Plotkin and Aharon Weissbrod, along with research student Lee Sela of Weizmann Institute of Science’s Department of Neurobiology created the new system which identifies changes in air pressure inside the nose’s nostrils. The gadget then translates these changes into electrical signals. The device was tested on healthy individuals as well as quadriplegics and the data showed that the device is easily learned.

Patients who have “locked-in syndromes” (unimpaired cognitive abilities while being completely paralyzed) have the ability to finally communicate with others and to even initiate communication. Caretakers the world over will rejoice once this technology spreads to common use. Many parents of paralyzed children have longed for the day to hear their child speak… and with the new sniffing technology, they may get that chance.

Even those patients on respirators can control the muscles involved in the soft palate to sniff. Researchers were able to devise a device that bypasses the airflow into the nostrils. About 75% of these patients were able to use the device. For the healthy patients, the device was favorable such as a mouse or joystick used to play video games.

One woman who had been locked-in for 18 years after a traffic accident says the device is easier to use than a blink-based device. About 13 patients were able to use sniffing to operate a computer and write messages. For most, it only took days to learn the device and how to sniff to operate.

Further fascinating results included the case of steering wheelchairs. After 15 minutes of practice time, a patient was able to navigate a route with sharp turns as well as a non-disabled volunteer. This could also lead to other uses such as for pilots or even surgeons. Because the device can detect in or out directions of sniffing, and long or short sniffs, there exists the possibility of creating a “language” with multiple signals.

The best news is that it’s relatively inexpensive to produce these devices. This means more people who need this device and are on disability income are more likely to afford them on their own. Insurance companies are also more likely to cover the device if it is cost-efficient.