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A Sniff of Language
June 15, 2011 - By: - In: In the News / Awards - Comments Off on A Sniff of Language

Every language smells in its own way. Mostly on account of what the speaker had for dinner. The smell of things is a powerful and very personal means of communication, and one that, unlike wagging tongues, requires a different set of motor skills. With good training, humans can be taught to use those sniffy skills to follow a trail like a hound dog. Scientists now hope to use that same nasal talent to use those sniffing skills to help severely paralyzed people get around. Sniff testing, described in the July 26, 2010 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), suggests that many severely paralyzed people will be able to communicate by sniff in the future.  Scientific American reported on testing for the “sniff controller,” developed by researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.  The device, worn like an oxygen mask, “measures pressure inside the nose, translating the intensity and frequency of sniffing into electronic commands for a computer communication device or a wheelchair. The researchers also created a passive sniff controller that provides nearly the same level of control to individuals on respirators.”

This is because sniffing muscles are often the last set of motor skills remaining to the profoundly disabled. And the numbers of the profoundly disabled are growing. As noted by lead researcher of the PNAS study, Anton Plotkin, “paradoxically, improvements in emergency medicine have increased survival albeit with severe disability ranging from quadriplegia to ‘locked-in syndrome.’ Locked-in syndrome is characterized by intact cognition yet complete paralysis, and hence these individuals are ‘locked-in’ their own body, at best able to communicate using eye blinks alone.”

“The team’s first patient was a 51-year-old woman who developed locked-in syndrome following a stroke seven months earlier. She could breathe independently but could not control her eye movements or properly direct airflow through her nose—at first. After 20 minutes of practice a day for 19 days the woman finally learned to sniff with purpose and immediately began using the text-writing software, composing her first personal message to her family since her stroke. She spent approximately 20 seconds on each letter—writing about three letters a minute—taking more than twice as long as healthy volunteers. The researchers note, however, that this rate exceeds that at which locked-in French journalist and author Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote his novel The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which he dictated at an average rate of one word every two minutes, using blinks alone.” Note that Bauby wrote the book one letter at a time, blinking each time his transcriptionist hit the correct letter as she recited the alphabet.

The sniff controller was also adopted for wheelchair navigation: two sniffs in means move forward; two sniffs out means go backward; a sniff in followed by a sniff out turns the chair left; reversing the order turns it right. Sniff control should not be confused with sip-and-puff, in which users suck air in and out of a straw to navigate a wheelchair or cursor.

So now a sniff becomes a cry. Bauby asked, “Does the cosmos contain keys for opening up my diving bell? A subway line with no terminus? A currency strong enough to buy my freedom back? We must keep looking. I’ll be off now.” He died two days after his book was published.

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