Sniffing device can help restore functions for severely disabled persons.: ©The Weizmann Institute of Science A sniffing device developed by Israeli researchers is probably the best
invention to restore motor and communication functions that severely disabled persons ever thought would come about. The device can help those without limbs, stroke patients, and even many completely paralyzed persons, within a limited time after their trauma, to restore communication, movement, and even play computer games as if they used their hands to control joysticks.
Still an experimental device, the "sniff controller" was developed to unlock the bodies of those suffering with "locked-in syndrome," often found in stroke and paralysis patients who are aware of their environments but cannot respond to them. The term explains the victims' feelings of being locked in their own bodies, or being trapped.
Even in what is described as 'complete' paralysis, the cranial nerves are often still able to send messages to the soft palate which regulates the opening and closing of the nasal passages; thus, the researchers were able to assume that sniffing ability may still be in tact. The sniffer device, developed by members of the Department of Neurobiology of The Weizmann Institute of Science and The Sackler Faculty of Medicine in Israel, measures nasal pressure and converts it to electrical energy that passes to an actuator - a USB device attached to a computer.
While the sniffer device enabled Internet searching functions, email writing, and wheelchair control, the following diagram shows how accurate the sniffing device was at playing online games -- competing quite well against a mouse and a joystick.
Sniffing device competes with mouse and joystick!: ©The Weizmann Institute of Science
It is important to note that the sniffer device was intended for persons recently impaired, essentially as emergency intervention. The reason for this is that it is important to capture and use neural connections while they are still active and strengthen them before they atrophy. And in neurology, gains in one area can lead to gains in other areas, so the aim is to use all the abilities one has as soon as possible after trauma.
Nevertheless, some of the participants in the study were persons with locked-in syndrome for months or years and showed marked improvement in their abilities when using the sniffer device. A 51-year old stroke patient, for example, was able to communicate for the first time in 7 months with her family, by writing them a message. A 42 year-old man, locked in for 18 years after a car accident, wrote his name. It took him 20 minutes, but with more time and practice, he could advance his skills, and thereby his control of his life.
There was some worry among observers that sniffing might interfere with normal respiration; however, the investigators had not experienced problems in this regard. Nevertheless, they will build in safeguards against such emergencies.
The Weizmann Institute has applied for a patent on the technology. As for the researchers, they will now test the sniffer device on patients in vegetative states.
"Sniffing enables communication and environmental control for the severely disabled," Procedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), HealthDay