Tiny ear muscle device could help MND sufferers to communicate

6 May 2021, 07:04

Earswitch is a Human-Computer Interface device that works by detecting intentional movement of your eardrum by one of the smallest muscles in your body, the tensor tympani (University of Bath/PA)
30207-0019. Picture: PA

The revolutionary device could allow people with neurological conditions to communicate again using a tiny hidden ear muscle.

A revolutionary device could allow people with neurological conditions to communicate again using a tiny hidden ear muscle.

The Earswitch device is being developed by a GP and a team of researchers at the University of Bath and could offer fresh hope for people with conditions such as Motor Neurone Disease (MND).

Earswitch enables people to control a keyboard by tensing the tensor tympani muscle in the ear.

It is hoped the Earswitch device will help people with MND communicate through the tensor tympani muscle in the ear (University of Bath/PA)
It is hoped the Earswitch device will help people with MND communicate through the tensor tympani muscle in the ear (University of Bath/PA)

GP Dr Nick Gompertz has developed a prototype involving an assistive keyboard like the one used by the late Professor Stephen Hawking.

But whereas for Prof Hawking communication relied on him tensing a muscle in his cheek, this new device uses a muscle in the ear.

The device is linked to the tensor tympani muscle, which for some can be controlled voluntarily.

This muscle is one of the smallest in the body and was once thought to help protect the eardrum from loud noise.

It is believed that control of this muscle might be preserved in people “locked-in” due to stroke, and in late-stage MND.

Current existing assistive devices can become unusable as neurological conditions such as MND worsen over time.

Earswitch might offer a breakthrough for individuals with the most severe communications restrictions.

Dr Gompertz said: “When I was a medical student, I witnessed people losing the ability to use keyboards that they relied on to communicate.

“I have always been aware of the ability to tense a muscle in my ear, and so wondered if it could be used to control these communication devices.

The device could also be used in headset devices to help people answer the phone while on the move (University of Bath/PA)
The device could also be used in headset devices to help people answer the phone while on the move (University of Bath/PA)

“Years later, after watching a documentary about a talented, non-verbal 13-year-old who had written a book with just his eyes by looking at a physical spelling board, I tried again and successfully discovered how to achieve this.

“Many people won’t have ever noticed this muscle in their ears. But when they are asked to concentrate when they yawn they may notice the muscle makes it more difficult to hear, which may also cause a fullness or rumbling sensation in their ears.

“Our current working prototype is a miniature camera held in a silicone ear-piece.

“The camera picks up movement of the eardrum when the person intentionally tenses the middle ear muscle.

“This movement is detected by the computer and controls an on-screen keyboard.

“The keyboard scans sequentially through rows of letters, then groups of letters, allowing single letters to be selected by a simple ‘ear-click’.”

Dr Gompertz said there was huge potential for Earswitch, beyond helping those with communication difficulties.

“My goal has always been to help people to communicate,” he said.

“However, beyond those with neurological conditions there is potentially a huge application to use this technology in other, future assistive applications – for example answering calls via headphones or pods while on the move.”

Dr Brian Dickie, from the MND Association, added: “Tremendous advances are being made in developing assistive technologies to improve the lives of people with neurological conditions.

“Due to the severe paralysis that occurs with MND, new and innovative approaches are needed to allow people to be able to use these technologies.

“It appears that the tensor tympani muscle may remain functional even in advanced stages of MND, so the Earswitch may offer a completely new opportunity to give people with MND greater control over how they communicate, how they can control their environment – ultimately the way they choose to live their lives.”

By Press Association