Scientists sniff out discovery to help quadriplegics

People with locked-in syndrome (usually manifesting as quadriplegia), which is a complete paralysis of most of the body, may soon be able to communicate, control their wheelchair, and even surf the internet – by sniffing.

The unusual discovery (New Scientist) was made by Noam Sobel, a neurobiologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. He and his team realised that the ability to sniff was one of the few faculties left intact after severe injury which led to the syndrome. They attached sensors to a nasal tube and noticed how it picked up pressure changes whenever the person sniffed.

What this means in practicality is that someone can wear these sensors, which are then connected to a computer or wheelchair. The sensors act like a keyboard for giving commands to move the wheelchair or type text on the screen to communicate with others.

Of course, the system is complex, as sniffing is not our natural form of communication or data input, which we all know is grunting. A series of commands via sniffing are designed to control a wheelchair, for example, but users need to be trained how to do so with ease and precision to ensure they have full control of the wheelchair and for their overall safety. 

A certain amount of training is required, but that will not be an issue for those suffering with the syndrome. All 11 of the people with the condition that tested this new system were able to use it effectively after some short training.

Usually those suffering with locked-in syndrome still have control of their eyes. Some technology has already been developed to track eye movements, but it is significantly more expensive than Sobel’s new system, and, let’s face it, money saved in this current economic climate is not to be sniffed at. Er.

Of course, results could go haywire if someone decides to cook bacon in the room next door. Sniff.