Can something as simple as an electronic tongue stimulator really help the brain heal itself? It appears so.

  • Image about Ron Husmann
Ron Husmann’s life was pretty good, to say the least. By the time he was 41, he had appeared on Broadway in a featured role in the musical Fiorello! , toured with Howard Keel in Camelot and been nominated for a best actor Tony Award for his 1960 performance in Tenderloin. What’s more, he had acted in a number of major television series, such as Cheers, 12 O’Clock High and Dr. Kildare. But it all started to fall apart when, in 1981 at the age of 44, he contracted multiple sclerosis (MS). By the next year, his voice, his livelihood and the talent that had given so much meaning to his life were gone. But thanks to an innovative experimental technique developed at the University of Wisconsin that involved electrically stimulating the nerves in his tongue, not only can the Rockford, Ill., native talk again, but he can also sing.

“By the time I got to Wisconsin, I could hardly talk,” says Husmann, who now lives in Los Angeles. “I would lose my voice completely. After the first day, I realized I was able to hum. And then I realized I could speak really loudly. It was a shock. I was able to sing. It was the first time I’ve been able to sing a whole song in 30 years. All of a sudden, I just totally broke down. It was incredible. It didn’t sound good, but the fact that I was able to sustain all the way through was shocking.”

Prior to Husmann’s receiving the tongue stimulation last fall in the university’s Tactile Communication & Neurorehabilitation Lab, University of Wisconsin speech pathologist Sherri Zelazny evaluated him. “If 100 is normal speaking effort, he said he was working 500 to 1,000 times as hard to produce voice for speaking,” she says.

Two weeks after the treatment, he felt his voice was easier to produce. She says he rated his speaking effort at 120 — “just barely perceptible [effort],” she explains.

The success came as a surprise — and not just to Husmann. Yuri Danilov, Ph.D., the lab’s neuroscience director, recalls telling Husmann, “ ‘Losing your voice has taken years. It would be too naive to think we could fix it in a few minutes or a few hours.’ ” Danilov now says, matter-of-factly, “I was wrong.”

MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS causes nerves to fail to properly conduct the impulses that tell our muscles and organs what to do. The fatty coating of nerves, called the myelin sheath, degenerates, thus blocking or interrupting the normally smooth and swift conduction of impulses. MS is thought by many scientists to be an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system essentially starts to ravage it.

Husmann was part of a pilot study exploring the effect of tongue stimulation on these MS symptoms.