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Tongue seen as portal to the brain

Tactile electrical sensor

A tactile tongue-based, electrical sensor developed by Paul Bach-y-Rita and Kurt A. Kaczmarek routes spatial information through the tongue to the brain. (Photo: Jeff Miller) (6K JPG)

The tongue, asserts Paul Bach-y-Rita, is a terrific portal to the brain. The UW-Madison physician and Biomedical Engineering Center member says the tongue might serve as the ideal tactile environment to help blind people navigate, give Navy Seals directions in dim underwater environments and guide urban search-and-rescue teams as they comb the confusion of smoke-filled buildings for people to rescue.

"You don't see with your eyes, you see with your brain," says Bach-y-Rita, who, with colleague Kurt Kaczmarek, has applied for a patent on a device that uses electrical impulses to route spatial information through the tongue to the brain.

"The brain is very malleable," says Bach-y-Rita. "You can compensate for sensory loss by rehabilitating the brain" and turning to surviving sensory systems such as the skin and the tongue to substitute for lost vision.

Loaded with nerves and bathed in its own conductive saline solution, the tongue is an ideal surface for a tiny array of 144 electrodes that can, through the coordinated firing of mild electrical impulses, route images from a camera, computer or other device straight to the brain.

New miniaturized electronics, say Bach-y-Rita and Kaczmarek, will permit the device to be as small or smaller than a dental retainer and enable it to be built directly into the respirators used by divers and firefighters.

A related, tongue-based application is being developed by UW-Madison researcher Mitchell Tyler to help people who have lost their sense of balance. The technology has even caught the attention of some in the video gaming industry who see it as a bold new frontier for controlling the action of electronic gaming.