A new device could help people with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) communicate better by pulling a muscle in their ear.
MND is a degenerative disease that has affected the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. It allowed him to control no part of his body except his cheek muscle, which he vibrated to communicate.
Dubbed Ear Switch, the prototype device developed by researchers at Bath University, allows people to communicate by straining a small muscle in their ear to operate a supporting keyboard, such as the one used by Hawking.
The device is connected to the tensor tympani muscle, which can be controlled voluntarily for some. This muscle is one of the smallest in the body and was once thought to protect the eardrum from loud noise.
It is believed that control of this muscle can be maintained in people who are “locked in” due to a stroke and late-stage MND.
Dr Gompertz with the Ear Switch
This is important because existing tools can become unusable as neurological conditions such as MND worsen over time.
As such, Ear Switch could provide a breakthrough for individuals with the most severe communication limitations. Dr. Nick Gompertz, who developed the prototype, said, “Many people will never have noticed this muscle in their ears.
But if asked to focus when yawning, they may find that the muscle makes it harder to hear, which can also cause a full or rumbling feeling in their ears. “Our current working prototype is a miniature camera in a silicone earplug.
The camera records movement of the eardrum when the person intentionally tightens the middle ear muscle. This movement is detected by the computer and controls an on-screen keyboard.
The keyboard scans sequentially through rows of letters and then groups of letters, allowing individual letters to be selected with a simple “ear click”. ”
Dr. Gompertz believes there is huge potential for Ear Switch to help people communicate, future support applications could include answering calls through headphones while on the move.
The team behind Ear Switch also wants to learn more about people’s ability to control their tensor tympani muscle, and whether it is possible to train people in this.
Very little is currently known about which part of the population can move this muscle voluntarily. They hope that the development of Earswitch can be scaled up within two years.