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October 21, 2013

New implant may provide clearer, richer sound for people who are deaf

Researchers are developing a device that could improve sound quality offered by cochlear implants

The cochlear implant is widely considered to be the most successful neural prosthetic on the market. The implant helps individuals who are deaf perceive sound. It works by translating auditory information into electrical signals that go directly to the brain, bypassing cells that don't serve this function as they should because they are damaged.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, approximately 188,000 people worldwide have received cochlear implants since the devices were introduced in the early 1980s, including roughly 41,500 adults and 25,500 children in the United States. Despite the prevalence of cochlear implants, the devices have a long way to go before their performance is comparable to that of the intact human ear.

Led by engineer Pamela Bhatti at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a team of researchers at both Georgia Tech and the Georgia Regents University created a new type of interface between the device and the brain that could dramatically improve the sound quality of the next generation of implants.

With funding from NSF, Bhatti and her team have developed a new, thin-film electrode array that is up to three times more sensitive than traditional wire electrodes, without adding bulk. Unlike wire electrodes, the new array is also flexible, meaning it can get closer to the inner wall of the cochlea. The researchers believe the new design will create better coupling between the array and the nervous system, leading to a crisper signal.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1055801, a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program award for an ultra-low-power, MEMS-based, implantable biosystem for restoring vestibular function-platform for an integrated, human-centered, hybrid biosystem.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Ann Kellan, Science Nation Producer

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