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New Ear Device Might Lead to Better Sound Resolution for Deaf People

Update Date: Apr 05, 2013 12:00 PM EDT

The use of cochlear implants has improved hearing for over thousands of deaf individuals. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, ever since the introduction of cochlear implants in the 1980s, nearly 188,000 people globally have turned to these devices. Roughly 41,500 adults and 25,500 children in the United States alone enlist the use of cochlear implants. Due to the popularity of this product, which allows people to hear but definitely not at the best resolution, researchers have been attempting to create a newer product that would increase the sound resolution and thus, improve hearing for deaf people.

A research team from the Georgia Institute of Technology, led by Pamela Bhatti, Ph.D., announced that they have developed a new device that would improve the sound quality of these implants. The device will act as an interface between the implant and the brain, and would ideally improve the hearing for deaf individuals. Current cochlear implants work by directly translating sound vibrations without the use of functioning hair cells, which are responsible for hearing, into electrical signals that the brain reads and thus, allows the person to hear the outside noise.

Cochlear implants tend to be recommended for individuals who have suffered from severe to profound hearing loss. A person with normal hearing can pick up sounds between 20 to 60 decibels, and a person with severe hearing loss cannot hear any sounds fewer than 70 decibels. Based on this information, and the biological understanding of hearing loss, the researchers created a thin electrode array that can pick up more electrodes than the cochlear implant could without this added device. By being able to pick up more electrodes, the brain can process the electrical signals more effectively resulting in the individual's improved hearing.

Despite this new device, the researchers are still not sure how doctors will be able to implant the device correctly. According to Bhatti, the spot where the surgeon places the newer implant is vital in getting it to work. In the meantime, the device is being experimented on and is undergoing rounds of test before it can be used in humans.

"We are always designing with the end-user in mind," says Bhatti. "The human component is the most important one to consider when we translate science into practice."

The research was reported by the National Science Foundation.

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