New Avenues for the Disabled

There is not yet a way to make the blind see, but what if another sense could be a viable substitute for sight? For paraplegics, could there be a new, easy way to control the movement of an electric wheelchair without the usage of arms or hands? Scientists at the Weizmann Institute are making remarkable headway in advancing these and many more cutting-edge developments that may benefit the disabled. Although research often does not begin with the goal of offering solutions for people with disabilities, many discoveries by Weizmann scientists have the potential to enrich the lives of people with visual, hearing, physical, or cognitive impairment.

Many animals have senses that humans don't have. One of these senses could be crucial in developing aids for the blind: whisking. Mastered by rats, whisking is the act of moving whiskers back and forth about eight times a second to locate objects in an environment. A team of Weizmann neurobiologists performed an experiment where subjects in blindfolds were equipped with a "whisker," or 30-cm-long elastic "hair" with force sensors at the base, on the index finger of each hand. Two poles were placed at armís length on the left and right of the subject, one slightly further back than the other. The subjects were able to distinguish which was closer based on which whisker made contact earlier.

With each test, sensitivity improved dramatically, with the ability to detect movement of just one centimeter. The findings are a huge step in helping the blind to "see" in an easy, intuitive way.

A different type of sensory research sought to help paraplegics with mobility and communication. Thanks to Prof. Noam Sobel and his team of researchers, a paraplegic woman was able to direct her own wheelchair for the first time in 10 years – by using her nose. Prof. Sobel developed a "sniff controller," a device that allows severely disabled people to control their wheelchairs by sniffing. Because sniffing is controlled by the soft palette, which receives signals directly from the brain, rather than the spinal column, this new method holds great potential. The device is a small rubber tube in front of the nostrils that responds to changes in air pressure. Through a "sniff code," people were able to control their electric wheelchairs and became adept quite quickly.

Weizmann scientists are also performing research in spinal cord and other neurological injuries. Prof. Michal Schwartz has led numerous studies relating to nerve repair, and recently studies specific to the repair of retinal cells and injury to the optic nerve. Prof. Schwartz has also done similar studies with brain cells. Findings could have implications for improving sight for the visually impaired, brain function for the mentally ill, and functions of people with spinal cord injuries.

Meanwhile, Weizmann Institute's Molecular Neurobiology Group is investigating why simple nervous systems (such as those of worms and other invertebrates) repair so well after injury, while those of mammals can have such debilitating consequences. Understanding these mechanisms may give important insight into how the nervous system works.

These innovations are just a few ways research at the Weizmann Institute of Science is improving the lives of ordinary people who face day-to-day challenges, reinforcing the idea that science is not a distant luxury, but rather a real-life necessity.

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This holiday season, make a gift toward the betterment of humanity through science. Give today and you will receive a valuable tax deduction for 2012!

Prof. Noam Sobel