July 1, 2022

Sniff detector” could allow locked-in patients to communicate by breathing

Sniffs are a “good, fast trigger”


Scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, are testing a “sniff detector” that picks up pressure changes in the nasal cavity of the wearer and converts them into electrical signals. The device can be connected to specially-designed software and used to move a computer cursor or drive a wheelchair.

The device was tested on three people with locked-in syndrome, a paralysing condition where a fully intact mind is “locked” inside a paralysed body. One of them, a 51-year-old woman left unable to move, blink or speak following a stroke, was able to communicate with her family for the first time. She spent 19 days learning how to produce a sniff on demand, practising 20 minutes each day, and was able to write her family a message. To this day, it is the only way she is able to communicate.

Another patient, a man who had been “locked in” for 18 years after a car accident, was able to write his own name after less than 20 minutes of using the device. The detector also enabled eleven other quadriplegics to drive a wheelchair and surf the internet.

The device was developed almost by accident by Noam Sobel, a neurobiologist at the Weizmann Institute. Dr Sobel told Discover Magazine: “we noticed that sniffs are a very good and fast trigger. It then simply dawned on us that instead of triggering odour, we could trigger anything: letters in a text writer or turns of a wheelchair. The rest just flowed or rather, rushed from there.”

Niels Birbaumer, at the University of Tubingen in Germany, told New Scientist that he was doubtful that the detector would work for fully locked-in patients. He said they would not have control of their muscular system to operate the device. Dr Sobel replied that the system was still in its developmental stages. ~ London Telegraph, Jul 27

Jared Yee
Creative commons
locked-in syndrome