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March 13, 2006 - Image 5

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 2006-03-13

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A new implant could revolutionize hearing-aid technology

By Chad Brenner
Daily Science Writer
A group of University scientists recently
developed a new hearing aid device which
will allow users to hear a higher-quality
sound than existing technology permits.
The device is called a cochlear implant
- a type of hearing aid implanted in a spi-
raled, snail-like structure in the ear called
the cochlea.
Led by Kensall Wise, professor of elec-
trical engineering and computer science,
the group developed the cochlear implant
to improve the hearing of profoundly deaf
patients and help surgeons minimize dam-
age when inserting the device.
"Currently, people (with cochlear
implants) have trouble with tonal languages,"
Wise said, referring to languages like Man-
darin that rely heavily on tonal accents.
To improve this, the group devised a
way to use high-density electrodes in the
implant so that more tones are audible
"The hope is that we will improve cochle-

it will unroll to lightly grip the interior
wall (where it can stimulate the auditory
nerve) ."
A device with this capability would fur-
ther reduce the risk of damaging vital struc-
tures as the cochlear implant is inserted.
"The idea is to have the implant hug the
inner wall as tightly as possible," Wise
"Because the new electrode arrays are
smaller than previous ones, sensors can be
added to the implant to ensure a higher level
of safety. For example, position sensors could
be added as well as sensors that tell when an
implant contacts a wall," Wise said.
This process would ensure that fragile
structures are not ruptured or broken when
the cochlear implant is inserted, allowing the
electrodes to move deeper into the ear.
"'The cochlear implant (pictured) is actu-
ally sized for guinea pigs," Wise said.
"The human electrode array is four times
as long, but has the same high density of
electrode sites (as the pictured device)."
Cochlear implants work with an exter-
nal microphone - this is usually a small
device which wraps around the user's ear

Inside the ear:


ar implants in order to
its of what cochlear
implants can do," Wise
Wise said current
technology allows an
implant to use about
22 stimulating sites.
However, the new
implant could have
128 stimulating sites,
which would provide a
much higher resolution
of sound.
But problems with
current cochlear
implants are not only
limited to the quality
of sound.
"If the implant is not
inserted far enough,
everyone sounds like
Mickey Mouse," Wise
Wise said his team
electrode more deeply

understand the lim-

"We are making

the implant like an
inchworm, so that
we can articulate its
movement and allow it
to crawl into position."
- Ken Wise
Professor of Electrical
Engineering and Computer Science

- that converts dif-
ferent sounds into
electrical signals.
To give users an
actual sense of hear-
ing, the implants
stimulate the remain-
ing functional audi-
tory nerves with short
pulses of electrical
Cochlear implants
are generally used by
patients with impaired
hearing but do not
restore full hearing
to a patient. They can
restore hearing over
a small set of pitches,
depending on which
auditory nerves are
still functioning.

wants to insert the
in order to cover a

greater range of frequencies, especially
low frequencies or bass sounds can only
be stimulated in the deepest part of the
The danger when inserting the implant is
causing damage to fragile structures in the
cochlea. Currently, to insert an implant, sur-
geons have to push a small, wire-like struc-
ture into the cochlea. This causes the wire
to take on the spiral shape of the cochlea as
it is implanted.
"We are making the implant like an inch-
worm, so that we can articulate its move-
ment and allow it to crawl into position. It
will be like a party favor that unrolls; only

implant users who had profound hearing
loss can talk on the phone, meaning that
users do not have to lip read to understand
sounds. All auditory information comes
from the implant.
After more testing, Wise said that the
group hopes to begin working with a com-
pany to manufacture at least a few pieces
of the device, but it is unlikely that they
will be manufactured for another four or
five years.
These newer cochlear implant technolo-
gies will then be available for profoundly
deaf patients - if they want to use them.
Despite the success of the device, cochle-
ar implants are controversial. Several pro-
foundly deaf patients in the signing deaf


community have been against use of the
device in children born with hearing loss.
Members from this community feel that the
devices detract from the deaf community.
An article published in Nature magazine in
2004 suggested that people opposed to cochle-
ar implants experience, "a level of social inti-
macy that is rare among the hearing."
Carol Padden, a linguist at the Univer-
sity of California, San Diego, contributed

to the article. In it, Padden explained some
of the opposition to the technology.
"I will meet another deaf person for the
first time and in five or ten minutes, it's not
uncommon to know a great deal about their
family and personal life," she said.
The paper explained the argument of those
opposed to cochlear implants by addressing
the even more controversial issue of genetic
testing, "Employing a genetic diagnosis to

avoid having a baby with a disability is con-
troversial enough," Padden wrote. But inter-
estingly, Padden wrote that a small number
of deaf people would consider testing to
ensure that they had a deaf baby.
Only a minority of potential cochlear
implant users are opposed to the devices.
In fact, most parents are encouraging doc-
tors to test their children for hearing loss as
early possible.

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