One of the most interesting roles for the tongue is to serve as a direct “gateway” to the brain through thousands of nerve endings. Researchers at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (USAMRMC) in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and NeuroHabilitation Corporation are leveraging the power of the tiny nerves found in the tongue.
The USAMRMC signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with NeuroHabilitation and the university in February to allow the Army to further evaluate the device to look at its possible application for service members.
The goal is to restore lost physical and mental function for service members and civilians who have suffered traumatic brain injury, stroke, have Parkinson’s, or multiple sclerosis. The treatment involves sending specially-patterned nerve impulses to a patient’s brain through an electrode-covered oral device called a “PoNS”, a battery-operated appliance placed on the tongue.
Next, a 20 to 30 minute stimulation therapy, called Cranial Nerve Non-invasive Neuromodulation (CN-NiNM) plus a custom set of physical, occupational, and cognitive exercises based on the patient’s deficits is conducted. The idea is to improve the brain’s organizational ability and allow the patient to regain neural control.
NeuroHabilitation Corporation is funding the commercial development of the device. The company was created with support by Montel Williams, a celebrity and a military veteran who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999.
The PoNS prototype and associated therapeutic use was developed by university scientists Yuri Danilov, PhD, Mitchell Tyler M.S, and Kurt Kaczmarek PhD. Their research is based on the principle that brain function is not hardwired or fixed but can be reorganized in response to new experiences, sensory input, and functional demands.
This area of research is called neuroplasticity and is a promising and rapidly growing area of brain research. Also preliminary data shows that CN-NiNM can not only slow functional loss but has the potential to restore lost function.
Testing will include a collaborative study with researchers and clinicians at the Blanchfield Army Community Hospital in Fort Campbell, Kentucky resulting from a year-long coordination effort led by Capt. Ian Dews, Deputy Director of the USAMRMC Combat Casualty Care Research Program.
Additional patient testing will be conducted at other veteran facilities and civilian medical institutions. Concurrently, the USAMRMC in collaboration with the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Agency and the U.S Army Medical Materiel Development Activity will conduct environmental testing to find out if temperature and humidity pose any limitations for using the device. After the testing is completed, the USAMRMC will seek FDA clearance for PoNS.