'It's like Pop Rocks:' Device that tingles tongue used for neural therapy

CALGARY — Isaac Kohtakangas realized something was wrong as he was playing a round of golf in 2011.

The business intelligence analyst from Calgary had been having some difficulty with his balance, but it was a sudden loss of vision that gave him cause for alarm.

"I just noticed when I hit the ball it was gone and I couldn't track it at all," he told The Canadian Press in a recent interview.

Kohtakangas was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system which attacks myelin, the protective covering of the nerves, causing inflammation and often damage and disruption of nerve impulses.

The 38-year-old is one of two patients undergoing a 14-week neurological treatment program at Calgary's Synaptic Spinal Cord Injury and Neuro Rehabilitation Centre. Executive director Uyen Nguyen says

A device called PoNS — short for portable neuromodulation stimulator — sits on the surface of the tongue and delivers mild, high-frequency electrical impulses while the patient undergoes an intense regimen of daily physiotherapy. The hope is the tiny tingles lead to neuroplasticity and encourage new neural connections.

Clinics in Surrey, B.C., and Montreal also offer the therapy.

Synaptic executive director Uyen Nguyen says Canada is the only country to have approved the therapy clinically.

Kohtakangas said he had done his own research on the device before deciding to try it.

"It sounded like snake oil, like black-magic-type stuff. I was very interested at that point. I looked into it more and was really hopeful that I could actually do it because it sounded amazing."

He said he's optimistic it will "rewire" his brain.

"I'm really hoping to just improve my mobility in any way and my balance. If I could walk without a cane that would be amazing. Right now, I can walk for about 15 or 20 minutes and then I need a break."

The device is part of an intense workout. After a half hour working on his balance, he gets on a treadmill before finishing up by strolling — with a somewhat unsteady gait — around the workout area.

"You just have to try and stay as straight as possible and just stay balanced and the device just keeps stimulating your tongue as you go."

Nguyen said there is no pain involved with the device, which she tried during training.

"For those of us old enough to remember ... it's like Pop Rocks, maybe, with a can of Coke on top of it, so it can get pretty intense. That's what it feels like — kind of a tingling and popping sensation in your mouth."

"There are no guarantees. There are no promises for anything," she added. "But the research has been very, very promising to show that neuroplasticity is a true concept."

Health Canada approved use of the device, from Helius Medical Technologies, last November. Nguyen said it's to be used for mild to moderate traumatic brain injuries.

There's already a waiting list for other patients who want to try it, she said.

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Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press