Professor Naom Sobel (seated, center) and his research team.
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The Weizmann Institute of Science has a developed a system that allows quadriplegics to communicate with those around them and to operate a wheelchair using the sense of smell.

Behind the development is Professor Noam Sobel from the neurobiology department at the Weizmann Institute, and Dr. Anton Plotkin, engineer and research team partner. The members of the research team that also contributed to the development include Aaron Weisbrod, Lee Sela, Yara Yeshurun, Roni Kahana, and Dr. Lior Haviv.

"The ability to smell, or to breathe in through the nose, is a sense that remains even in the event of severe injury," Sobel explains. "People with congenital quadriplegia can still smell. The soft palate that controls the nasal breathing tract in unaffected, because it is made up of cranial nerves that do not pass through the spinal cord, but are instead connected directly to the brain."

According to Sobel, the research team developed a technique for measuring changes in nasal pressure. "When a person takes a sniff, there are changes in nasal pressure. The system that we developed includes a narrow tube with a sensor that rests on the nose. The sensor picks up the changes in nasal pressure, and translates it into an electrical charge."

Sobel explains, "The electrical charge allows a quadriplegic person to operate a wheelchair, but that's not all. We wrote computer code that allow quadriplegics to enter computer text, control a computer mouse, and play computer games."

"We worked with quadriplegic patients at Levinstein Rehabilitation Hospital in Ra'anana and with Dr. Nahum Soroker, who helped us develop the system," Sobel said. "We hooked the patients up to the system and they began to communicate. There was a patient who, with the help of the system that we developed, managed to send e-mails to her grandchildren for the first time in a decade. I was very moved."

Sobel says that the Weizmann Institute has registered a patent for the invention. "We hope that some organization will make use of the patent and commercialize the invention. Unfortunately, we haven't had any promising offers. Large international organizations in the field of medical equipment came to see the invention. They got excited, but – and I'll say this as gently as possible – they're debating whether or not to invest in the system, because it’s not profitable to develop an invention that aids quadriplegics."

"However, the system is useful in other ways. For example, with computer gaming. One of the interesting applications could be a computer game that is controlled by the sense of smell. Professional computer gamers who value quick reaction times could find this very interesting. The act of smelling is far quicker that the reaction time of a mouse or joystick."