Control a computer with your tongue | Science News for Students

Control a computer with your tongue

New device would let severely paralyzed people surf the Web
May 23, 2016 — 12:00 pm EST
tongue mouse

Emma Mogus, 17, shows how a tongue-controlled computer mouse might fit in a paralyzed patient’s mouth. 

M. Chertock / SSP

PHOENIX, Ariz. — A new tongue-controlled computer mouse would allow someone with no working arms or legs to use a computer. With such a device, people with even severe physical handicaps might navigate cyberspace. The new mouse system was unveiled last week by its designer, a Canadian teen.

More than 250,000 Americans alone have spinal cord injuries, according to experts at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Some 118,000 of these people are quadriplegic (Quah-drah-PLEE-jik), meaning both of their arms and legs are paralyzed. For these individuals, using a computer poses a big challenge. Some researchers have invented ways for such people to control a computer using brain waves or the movements of their eyes. But now, Emma Mogus has come up with an easier way for many such patients to control a computer: using their tongue.

Emma, 17, is a 12th grader at White Oaks Secondary School in Oakville, Canada. She showcased her invention here, on May 12, at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Created by Society for Science & the Public and sponsored by Intel, this year's competition brought together more than 1,750 students from 75 countries. (SSP also publishes Science News for Students.)

Emma built a prototype of her device using simple parts. The main part is a mouth guard, like those used by football players or other athletes. Emma drilled five holes in the mouth guard that a tongue could reach: two on the left side, two on the right, and one in the front. She installed a pressure-sensitive switch in each hole. Four of the switches correspond to the up, down, left and right arrows on a computer keyboard. The fifth switch acts like the “click” button on a computer mouse. Together, all of these parts cost less than $10.

Emma’s current prototype transmits a signal to a computer through a cable. But future versions could be designed to send those signals wirelessly, she notes.  

In tests, volunteers were able to quickly learn how to use Emma’s device. After just a session or two, they were navigating onscreen more quickly and typing more words per minute than when they started.

Emma suspects that her invention could be useful for far more people than just those with spinal-cord injuries. People with multiple sclerosis or other paralyzing conditions, might use the device too.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

cyberspace   A slang term for the Internet.

multiple sclerosis     A degenerative disease of the nervous system, resulting in paralysis. At present there is no known cure.

paralysis  The inability to willfully move muscles in one or more parts of the body. In some cases, nerves that carry the signal to move may have been severed or damaged. In other cases, the brain may be the source of the problem: It may fail to understand or act on a nerve’s signal to move.

prototype   A first or early model of some device, system or product that still needs to be perfected.

Society for Science and the Public, or SSP     A nonprofit organization created in 1921 and based in Washington, D.C. Since its founding, SSP has been not only promoting public engagement in scientific research but also the public understanding of science. It created and continues to run three renowned science competitions: the Science Talent Search (begun in 1942), the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (launched in 1950) and Broadcom MASTERS (created in 2010). SSP also publishes award-winning journalism: in Science News (launched in 1922) and Science News for Students (created in 2003). Those magazines also host a series of blogs (including Eureka! Lab).

quadriplegia       Paralysis in both arms and both legs. In Europe, a more common term is tetraplegia. (In Latin, quadri- means four. In Greek, tetra- means four.) A person paralyzed in all four limbs is said to be quadriplegic. 

NGSS: 

  • MS-LS1-8
  • MS-ETS1-4
  • HS-ETS1-2

Further Reading

S. Perkins. "Teens take home huge awards for their research." Science News for Students. May 13, 2016.

S. Perkins. "Injured leg? Here’s a built-in footstool." Science News for Students. May 13, 2016.

S. Perkins. "New device identified money by its color." Science News for Students. May 12, 2016.

S. Perkins. Eyes offer new window into Alzheimer’s disease. Science News for Students. May 11, 2016.

S. Perkins. New devices coming to assist the disabled. Science News for Students. February 23, 2016.

S. Perkins. “Computing: Swapping a glove for a keyboard.” Science News for Students. May 28, 2015.

S. Perkins. "Vision-ary high tech." Science News for Students. February 16, 2015.

S. Perkins. “When a part makes you whole.” Science News for Students. February 16, 2015.

S. Ornes. “Restoring a sense of touch.” Science News for Students. October 31, 2013.