The new device is so easy to operate that it opens many other possibilities for quadriplegics.
A tiny magnet is attached to a patient's tongue so that each movement changes the magnetic field around her head.
Sensors located in the headset register the changes and transmit them to a smartphone, where an app translates them to commands for the wheelchair's motors.
As the patient gently moves her tongue, the wheelchair starts rolling and changes direction, said the inventor of the tongue drive, Maysam Ghovanloo, associate professor of electrical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.
"The tongue not only has sensory inputs to the brain, but it also has a very good motor capability, so why not use the tongue as an output of the brain," said Ghovanloo.
Ghovanloo said his invention is more useful for quadriplegics than voice commands, because their voices may be very weak.
Other systems, allowing control with electrical signals from the brain, are still in development and require intense concentration.
Ghovanloo said his patients were able to master the tongue drive in a few hours.
His team now is developing it for controlling almost anything.
"And the target device could be your wheelchair, could be your computer, could be your flat-screen TV, air conditioning system, you name it, because the rest of the technology is already in place," he said.
The Georgia Tech team also is trying to place the magnetic sensors into a dental retainer, getting rid of the headset.
Professor Ghovanloo said his device could be available for purchase within a few years.