On an episode of "Shark Tank" (a reality TV show in which people present their business ideas to a panel of potential investors, or "sharks"), a man proposed the idea of a surgically implanted Bluetooth set. The "sharks" laughed him right out of the tank, reasoning that nobody would want to undergo a surgical procedure unless it significantly improved the user's quality of life. Can the same logic be applied to medical devices? How much benefit must an implant offer in order to warrant a surgical procedure? Sometimes surgery can't be avoided; it's hard to imagine a device that serves as a pacemaker but doesn't require some sort of surgery. However, for some other types of medical devices, exploring alternatives to implanted/surgical options sounds much more feasible.
One example of a wireless device that offers an alternative to wired or implanted options is known as the Tongue Drive System. This system, developed at Georgia Tech University , would enable people with high-level spinal injuries to operate a computer and drive an electrically powered wheelchair by moving their tongues. It definitely sounds like an attractive option, especially compared to more invasive alternatives that involve implanting a chip into the user's brain, or being hooked up to electrodes.
The dental appliance is made up of magnetic field sensors mounted on four corners that detect movement of a tiny magnet attached to the tongue. It includes a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and an induction coil to charge the battery. When in use, the output signals from the sensors are transmitted to an iPod or iPhone; software on the device interprets the tongue commands by determining the relative position of the magnet to the sensors in real time.
The team also created a universal interface for the intraoral Tongue Drive System that attaches directly to a standard electric wheelchair. The device is still in the prototype stage, but has made significant progress over time. Researchers demonstrated the system at the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference last week, and plan to start clinical trials soon.