Assistive Technologies

Public Health Burden
More than two million Americans suffer from paralysis as a result of accidents, acts of violence, and neurological diseases. Every year, 11,000 new cases of severe spinal cord injury occur, and more than half of these victims are between 16 and 30 years old. The burden of providing lifelong special care services that currently cost about $4 billion each year is tremendous.

New Approaches to Assistive Technology
Assistive neuro-technologies help paralyzed people communicate and effectively control their environments, providing independence, decreasing the need for continuous help from others, and lowering healthcare and assisted-living costs. ARRA funds have been used to develop new approaches to assistive technology that provide greater independence for individuals and reduce healthcare costs.

  • Tongue Drive System: A new Assistive Neuro-Technologies, called the Tongue Drive System, allows those with severe disabilities to access their environment by using the motion of their tongue. The Tongue Drive System device consists of a tiny magnet attached to the tongue, a regular headset, and a compact computer or smartphone. To perform a task, the user makes a deliberate tongue movement that is associated with a specific action. For example, touching a lower left molar with the tip of the tongue means, move wheelchair or mouse cursor to the left. After brief training, a user can do nearly everything that an able-bodied individual can do with that device including communicating, education, training, entertainment, and controlling other devices such as powered wheelchairs, assistive robotic manipulators, and other home/office appliances. A person’s natural or prosthetic limbs can be manipulated to move by functional electrical stimulation with the device. ARRA funding for this project also supported a collaborative effort with a multidisciplinary team of experts to clinically evaluate the usability and efficacy of our new assistive device in two top-10 rehabilitation hospitals.1 Watch video of the Tongue Drive System
  • BrainGate: In an ongoing clinical trial, a paralyzed woman was able to reach for and sip from a drink on her own—for the first time in nearly 15 years—by using her thoughts to control a robotic arm. The trial is evaluating the safety and feasibility of an investigational device called the BrainGate neural interface system. This is a type of brain-computer interface intended to put robotics and other assistive technology under the brain’s control. NIH partially supported the trial through ARRA funds. The development of brain-computer interface technology, which has many possible applications to assistive devices, represents decades of pioneering investment by the NIH2. Watch video of the robotic arm

Contributing NIH Institutes & Centers

  • National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB)
  • Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)