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Headlines BrainPort device allows patients to recover long gone senses


Hella Constipated
Using novel electronic aids, vision can be represented on the skin, tongue or through the ears. If the sense of touch is gone from one part of the body, it can be routed to an area where touch sensations are intact. Pilots confused by foggy conditions, in which the horizon disappears, can right their aircraft by monitoring sensations on the tongue or trunk. Surgeons can feel on their tongues the tip of a probe inside a patient's body, enabling precise movements.

Sensory substitution is not new. Touch substitutes for vision when people read Braille. By tapping a cane, a blind person perceives a step, a curb or a puddle of water but is not aware of any sensation in the hand; feeling is experienced at the tip of the cane.

But the technology for swapping sensory information is largely the effort of Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita, a neuroscientist in the University of Wisconsin Medical School's orthopedics and rehabilitation department. More than 30 years ago, Dr. Bach-y-Rita developed the first sensory substitution device, routing visual images, via a head-mounted camera, to electrodes taped to the skin on people's backs. The subjects, he found, could "see" large objects and flickering candles with their backs. The tongue, sensitive and easy to reach, turned out to be an even better place to deliver substitute senses, Dr. Bach-y-Rita said.

Until recently sensory substitution was confined to the laboratory. But electronic miniaturization and more powerful computer algorithms are making the technology less cumbersome. Next month, the first fully portable device will be tested in Dr. Bach-y-Rita's lab.

The BrainPort is nearing commercialization. Two years ago, the University of Wisconsin patented the concept and exclusively licensed it to Wicab Inc., a company formed by Dr. Bach-y-Rita to develop and market BrainPort devices. Robert Beckman, the company president, said units should be available a year from now.

Meanwhile, a handful of clinicians around the world who are using the BrainPort on an experimental basis are effusive about its promise.

"I have never seen any other device do what this one does," said Dr. F. Owen Black, an expert on vestibular disorders at the Legacy Clinical Research and Technology Center in Portland, Ore. "Our patients are begging us to continue using the device."


It looks like some of my many visons of the future are coming to life now. I can't wait to see what things are like in fifty years.