Scientists Harness The Power of Tongues

Image: Chris Walts/Flickr
Image: Chris Walts/Flickr

Stick out your tongue and wiggle it around a bit. Notice how unique and strong this muscle is, and how much it does for you. It’s one of the reasons why scientists are pioneering research into tongue input technology.


According to Motherboard, scientists at the Laboratory for Advanced Brain Signal Processing in Tokyo, for example, believe that the tongue’s range of movement could have a variety of applications, including helping to direct motorized wheelchairs and assisting in speech recognition.

“The human tongue is a special organ with dynamic mobility,” computer scientist Yunjun Nam wrote, adding:

One may test the following tongue movements to realize its variety. The tongue can be bent up/down, moved left/right, stuck out forward/retracted backward, rolled clockwise/ counterclockwise, flattened, or rounded. Some people even can fold the lateral edges of the tongue upward to form a tube, commonly referenced as a ‘tongue-rolling’ trait in old-fashioned introductory genetics courses.

The team is utilizing glossokinetic potential (GKP), or the electrical impulses generated by tongue movement. An electroencephalogram (EEG) can then pick up these movements, which opens the door for medical applications. The tongue is also not normally affected by spinal cord injuries, since it’s connected to the brain through the cranial nerve, which makes it critical for those who might be able to use it for movement.

The tongue is no stranger to these kinds of experiments. In 2011, a team at the Northwestern University School of Medicine helped a paralyzed man navigate his wheelchair thanks with the aid of a tongue piercing.


Weekend editor and night person at Gizmodo. More space core than human.


Coronal Shadow

Where do you site the electrodes to pick up the tongue-muscle impulses? A mouth implant would get in the way, so at the top of the throat? Or a sensor rig in the hard palate?

(Also, my Dad worked on a tongue-input system for his electrical engineering degree, 40-something years ago...)