The tongue is connected to the brain by thousands of cranial nerve fibers. There are motor fibers running from the brain to the tonue that activate the muscles of the tongue and there are sensory fibers (in the facial and glossopharyngeal nerves) that bring sensations from the tongue to the brain. Very recently researchers at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command have collaborated with researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and NeuroHabilitation Corporation to use the sensory nerves of the tongue as a pathway to stimulate the brain and regenerate damaged brain tissue following TBI, stroke or MS.
They have created an experimental device they call the PoNS (a battery operated appliance covered with electrodes) that gets placed upon the tongue and sends specially-patterned nerve impulses to a patient’s brain. The electro-stimulation of the tongue is done in tandem with a custom set of physical, occupational, and cognitive exercises, based on the patient’s deficits.
The idea is to improve the brain’s organizational ability and allow the patient to regain neural control. The PoNS prototype and associated therapy were developed by University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists Yuri Danilov, Ph.D., Mitchell Tyler, M.S., P.E., and Kurt Kaczmarek, Ph.D. Their research is driven by the principle that brain function is not hardwired or fixed, but can be reorganized in response to new experiences, sensory input and functional demands. If the ongoing research shows the PoNS device to be safe and effective, the collaborators will apply for FDA approval.