A new device shows that tongue piercings can be more than just an expression of one's style. They can also help those who have lost the use of their arms and legs move. In a recent clinical trial, the device, called the Tongue Drive System, performed much better than the most widely used system.

The study, which was led by Associate Professor Maysam Ghovanloo, from the Georgia Institute of Technology, was recently published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

The most popular assistive technology for individuals with quadriplegia - also known as tetraplegia - to control a wheelchair is known as the sip-and-puff. With this method, users sip or puff air into a straw that is installed on their wheelchair.

This helps them send four basic instructions that drive the chair.

However, the Tongue Drive System is controlled by the placement of the user's tongue. A magnetic tongue piercing allows them to use their tongue like a joystick, and sensors in the piercing send the tongue's position to a wireless headset, which can then send six different commands to the wheelchair.

The idea for placing a magnet tongue piercing in the mouth of individuals with quadriplegia was created by Dr. Anne Laumann, from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

"Tongue piercing put to medical use - who would have thought it?" says Dr. Laumann. "It is needed and it works!"

A brief video below from Georgia Tech explains how the Tongue Drive System works.

Tongue Drive 'outperforms' sip-and-puff

To test the effectiveness of the new system, researchers asked both able-bodied participants and individuals with tetraplegia to complete certain tasks used in similar clinical trials.

For the able-bodied subjects, the researchers compared how they were able to place commands with the Tongue Drive System and with a keypad and mouse.

In one task, targets randomly appeared on the computer screen and the participants were instructed to move the cursor to click on the target.

From this, the researchers were able to analyze how much data is transferred from a person's brain to the computer as they execute a point-and-click task. The team says that as the trial progressed, the performance gap between the keypad and mouse and the Tongue Drive System narrowed.

Individuals with tetraplegia who drove the wheelchair with their tongue piercings - 11 in total - performed on average three times faster than their performance with the sip-and-puff system, the researchers observed.

Additionally, they drove the chairs with the same level of accuracy as they did with the sip-and-puff system, which over half of the patients had been using for years.

"That was a very exciting finding," says Ghovanloo. "It attests to how quickly and accurately you can move your tongue."

Tongue Drive System to hit the road

These experiments were repeated in the able-bodied participants over the course of 5 weeks, the researchers say, and in the tetraplegic group over 6 weeks.

Although experiments with the Tongue Drive System have so far only been done in the lab or hospital, the investigators say they will soon test how it works in patients' homes and other environments.

The system is not ready for commercialization yet, Ghovanloo says, but his startup company, Bionic Sciences, is working in collaboration with Georgia Tech to move toward that stage.

Based on the reactions of the users in the trial, the device will achieve success. Joy Bruce co-author of the study, says:

"By the end of the trials, everybody preferred the Tongue Drive System over their current assistive technology. It allows them to engage their environment in a way that is otherwise not possible for them."

Medical News Today recently reported on a finding published in Neurology that demonstrated how breathing low oxygen levels in short bursts could help improve the mobility of people with spinal cord injuries.