A whiff of progress: Researchers develop sniffing device to allow disabled to communicate, move around

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A technological breakthrough could allow the severely disabled to use their noses to communicate and even maneuver wheelchairs.

Cranial nerves in quadriplegic and other severely disabled individuals are seldom damaged, according to the Weizmann Institute research team, which is developing the technology. As such, the brain is still able to send signals to the soft palate at the back of the roof of the mouth. The research team has found a way to convert nasal pressure as the soft palate moves—essentially, sniffs—into electrical signals that can be relayed to an external device.

During their studies, researchers used the device to help one woman, who had been “locked in” for seven months after suffering a stroke, write a message to her family. Severely disabled people were also able to maneuver a wheelchair over a 115-foot course using simple commands: forward was two sniffs in; backward was two sniffs out; left was sniffs out then in; and right was sniffs in then out, according to the researchers' recently published research.

The researchers hope to test the device on patients in a vegetative state. Their research appears online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.