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New technology could allow people with Motor Neurone Disease to communicate via computer

A revolutionary assistive technology developed by GP Dr. Nick Gompertz was developed with a research team from the University of Bath to offer people with diseases such as motor neuron disease (MND) new ways of communicating via a computer.

Earswitch Ltd. developed a prototype that humans can communicate with by contracting a tiny muscle to operate an assistive keyboard such as the late Professor Stephen Hawking used. While for Stephen Hawking communication relied on tensing a muscle in his cheek, this new device uses a tiny, hidden muscle in the ear.

The device is connected to the tensor-tympani muscle, which for some can be voluntarily controlled. This muscle is one of the smallest in the body and was once supposed to protect the eardrum from loud noises.

It is believed that control of this muscle is retained in people who are “locked in” due to a stroke and in late-stage MND. This is important because currently available aids can become unusable as neurological diseases such as MND worsen over time. As such, Earswitch could offer a breakthrough for those with the most severe communication restrictions.

Dr. Gompertz explains, “When I was a medical student, I saw people lose the ability to use keyboards that they could rely on. I’ve always been aware of the ability to tense a muscle in my ear and have myself therefore asked whether this is possible. ” used to control these communication devices.

“Years later, after watching a documentary about a talented, non-verbal 13-year-old who wrote a book with just his eyes by looking at a physical spelling board, I tried again and successfully discovered how this could be achieved .

“Many people will never have noticed this muscle in their ears. However, if asked to focus while yawning, they may notice that the muscle is making it difficult to hear, which can also lead to fullness or rumbling in their ears.

“Our current prototype is a miniature camera that is held in a silicone earpiece. The camera records the movement of the eardrum when the person intentionally tenses the middle ear muscle. This movement is recognized by the computer and controls an on-screen keyboard. The keyboard searches through rows of letters and then groups of letters so that individual letters can be selected with a simple ‘ear click’. “

Dr. Gompertz adds that Earswitch has great potential: “My goal has always been to help people communicate. Beyond people with neurological disorders, however, there may be a large application to use this technology in other, future auxiliary applications – for For example, taking calls on the go using headphones or pods. “

In addition to developing the technology, drawing on expertise in health sciences and electronics and electrical engineering in Bath, the team behind Earswitch also wants to learn more about people’s ability to control their tensor-tympani muscle and whether it is is possible to train people like that.

Very little is currently known about the proportion of the population who can voluntarily move this muscle. Hence, the team needs both healthy people and people with neurological conditions to complete a short, 5-minute online survey so they can assess how people can benefit from Earswitch.

One of the leading researchers, Dr. Dario Cazzola, of the university’s Department of Health, adds, “We’re excited to help Nick understand more about how many people can use this tiny hidden muscle in the ear and learn more about the different ways people can exercise with We also help Nick our electronics and electrical engineering experts to further develop how the ear switch can be attached and miniaturized in the future.

“This is a great example of how we can help translate Nick’s blue sky thinking into a truly innovative, real-world project. We hope this work can greatly improve the lives of many people with neurological disorders in the UK and the UK around the world.”

Dr. Brian Dickie, director of research development for the MND Association, said:

Tremendous advances are being made in developing assistive technologies to improve the lives of people with neurological disorders. Because of the severe paralysis that occurs in MND, new and innovative approaches are required for people to use these technologies.

It seems that the tensor tympani muscle remains functional even in the advanced stages of MND, so the ear switch offers a whole new way of giving people with MND better control over how they communicate, how they can control their surroundings – ultimately how they choose to live their life. “