Researchers in the US have demonstrated that it’s possible for someone to navigate a computer or steer a wheelchair with a tongue piercing and a few sensors.

The team at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta showed that the movement of a tiny magnet in a tongue piercing can be detected by sensors and converted into commands, which can control a range of devices.

The Tongue Drive System (TDS) allows the user to use their tongue like a joystick once it has been pierced with a barbell-shaped titanium piercing.

This piercing is embedded with a high-strength magnet and its location within the mouth is recognised by four sensors mounted on a headset, two of which are placed on slim arms beside each cheek.

The sensors then wirelessly transmit data to an iPod with an app that has been developed to convert various tongue movements into instructions for the device that the user wants to control, such as a wheelchair.

The technology could also potentially be used to dial a phone, change the channel on the television or even type.

The researchers behind the project claim it holds promise for patients who have lost the use of their arms and legs, a condition known as tetraplegia or quadriplegia.

Tetraplegic people previously had to rely on sip-and-puff technology to deliver a limited number of basic commands to a wheelchair. The researchers claim the new system could provide paralysed wheelchair users with a higher level of independence than that offered by this common assistive technology.

The researchers trialled the technology on 23 able-bodied people and 11 with tetraplegic. Under the trial, six positions in the mouth were programmed to control a wheelchair or a computer.  For example, touching the left cheek with the tongue instructed the wheelchair to turn left. 

On average, people with tetraplegia were able to perform tasks three times as fast and with the same level of accuracy as with the other technologies currently on the market.

“By the end of the trials, everybody preferred the Tongue Drive System over their current assistive technology,” said Joy Bruce, manager of Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Lab and co-author of the study. “It allows them to engage their environment in a way that is otherwise not possible for them.”

For now the device is confined to university labs but the researchers are trying to fit the sensors into a dental brace in a bid to make it more stable on the road and increase the chances of it being approved by US regulators. 

The development is reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine.