The last major innovation in hearing technology occurred in 1985 when the cochlear implant — designed for children born with hereditary hearing loss — was developed. In the decades since, we have seen only incremental improvements on existing hearing technology, but big change is on the horizon.
A better cochlear implant
Tobias Moser, a professor of auditory neuroscience at the University Medical Center Göttingen, is working to improve the function of cochlear implants by turning them into optical devices instead of electric ones. Current cochlear implants turn sound into electrical signals to be transmitted to the brain. By contrast, Moser’s technique turns sound into light. Micro-LEDs flash onto genetically altered neurons, which send the information to the brain. His team has already shown that the device works in rodent models. Next up, primates. Then humans.
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Transforming touch to aid in hearing
At Neosensory, Scott Novich and his colleagues are developing a commercially available version of VEST, their research project that uses sensory substitution to map sounds onto the skin before transmitting to the brain. Novich's goal is to make a device that can be worn under clothes and may be more comfortable to wear for long periods of time than a traditional hearing aid.
While VEST is not likely to replace hearing aids, it could improve how they function, compensating for frequencies of sound that hearing aids don’t transmit well. Neosensory is doing participant research now and hopes to start manufacturing a product in about a year.
Repairing cells to restore hearing
Stefan Heller, a professor of otolaryngology at Stanford University, is researching how birds can repair inner ear cells to restore hearing as a model for helping people with degenerative hearing loss.
At Harvard Medical School, Albert Edge is doing research focused on regenerating the hair cells inside the cochlea. His team has found that certain molecular compounds could help hair cells regrow and improve hearing in those who have experienced hearing loss (not those with a genetic mutation).
Fixing gene mutations
Some researchers are working on fixing the defective genes that lead to hearing loss. In experiments, the altered gene is delivered to the relevant cells using a modified virus. The challenge is that there are hundreds of genetic mutations that can cause deafness, so researchers must make sure they're targeting the right ones. Several of these researchers have already been able to dramatically restore hearing in deaf mice over a period of several months.
Many of these exciting innovations are years away from being ready for human use and commercial applications. But if you face hearing challenges today, you need help today. While we may not have a cure yet, we have many high-tech solutions to help with hearing loss. See a trained audiologist, like Dr. Heather Dean at Sierra Nevada Hearing Aid Center, to have your challenges properly assed and treated. Call 775.882.3277 for an appointment.