While reading “The Brain that Changes Itself” I learned about Cheryl Schlitz’s amazing recovery story. Cheryl had been a “wobbler” someone who had the constant sensation of falling whenever she moved quickly or closed her eyes. She was the unfortunate victim of a bacterial infection which was treated with the drug gentamicin which is known to damage the human balance system (bilateral vestibular apparatus). The fascinating thing about Cheryl’s recovery is how she went from completely destroyed by this catastrophic loss of equilibrium to state to a high functioning normal state in just a few months of brain training.
Cheryl received treatment from Paul Bach-y-Rita a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin. Paul had been working on solutions to help the blind “see” with the aid of technology since the late 1960’s. One of the devices that Paul’s lab had developed was the “Brainport”. It is a microarray that fits on the tongue and can deliver slight electrical stimulation to map one sense to another. The tongue takes up a lot of brain space with all of its taste and touch abilities, it is immersed in a conductive saline solution (saliva) and has no skin covering it which makes the tongue somewhat ideal for sensory input. Cheryl was the first to receive treatment using a Brainport hooked up to an accelerometer to help with her retrain her brain.
While the technology worked amazing well during Cheryl’s initial sessions there was a big surprise. After Cheryl would remove the bulky green construction helmet and the Brainport the residual effects would continue on. Initially Cheryl would do very brief training periods of 1 minute of wearing the accelerometer and having the Brainport stimulation and experience twenty seconds of residual balance. She started wearing the electronics for up to 20 minutes while balancing in place and had residual positive effects lasting over three hours. After four months of training Cheryl no longer experienced the wobble effect and had experienced a miracle of brain plasticity.
One of the exciting things that Adafruit offers today is highly affordable accelerometers, gyros and haptic feedback devices. Last year Patrick Mineault working in conjunction with Dr. Marisse Masis-Solano were able to create a haptic glove to prove out the concept that one could build DIY devices that could help wobblers reprogram themselves. There are only three posts on this topic, but they are quite in depth.