Tongue Piercing: A Taboo Fashion Statement Becomes Assistive Technology

Chicago native Martin Mireles, 37, suffered a spinal cord injury when he was shot in the neck almost 20 years ago. Earlier this month, he was fitted with a magnetic tongue stud as part of a clinical trial at Northwestern’s medical school. The tongue stud is designed to help Mireles steer his wheel chair.

The tongue stud works by sending a signal to an electronic headset. When Mireles moves his tong to the left, the chair turns left. If he moves his tongue right, the chair turns right, and so on. Researchers opted to use the tongue because it is connected directly to the brain and less likely to be affected by the spinal cord injury. The tongue also does not tire easily, which means patients can use it for longer periods.

In contrast, the “sip and puff” method – controlling the wheelchair by blowing through a straw, relies on muscle control in the face and lungs, which may be affected by the injury. Scientists also developed the tongue stud because the straw often obscured the user’s face and is not as intuitive as the tongue method.

Mireles tested the piercing by successfully guiding his wheelchair through an obstacle course. Anna Carias, 30, a nondisabled volunteer was also fitted with a stud and tested the wheelchair. Scientists hope to expand this technology into activities of daily living, such as turning on the television.

If you or someone you know has suffered a spinal cord injury, a spinal injury lawyer can offer guidance.

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