The Next Generation of Hearing Aids Could Cure More Than Deafness

22 October 2019, 20:00 GMT+0000
Updated by Adam James
31 March 2020, 09:38 GMT+0000

Two of the rarer types of hearing loss occur in people who either have inner ear damage or suffer from auditory nerve problems. These types of hearing loss are much harder to correct than simple age-related hearing loss, even with brainstem implants that are purpose-built to address these hearing defects.

Now, thanks to recent advances in research, Otolaryngologists have invented a new solution that uses a flexible silicone-wrapped platinum electrode implant to offer hope to those with serious hearing impairment. These implants are conformable, body-safe, and resilient without the usual stiffness of metal implants. These implants are constructed using micron-level machining inspired by kirigami paper cutting techniques.

hearing aid
Photo by Gavin Whitner.

A typical hearing aid is a medical device that reinforces sound through electroacoustic systems. These systems digitally alter the environmental sound to make it audible to a patient suffering from hearing loss.

However, when it comes to actually getting an aid, nearly a quarter of users report that hearing aid devices do not work, and hence, they don’t need them. A similar number of people also say that they are too expensive, while 15 out of 100 people say they are too uncomfortable to wear.

While many people suffering from hearing impairment have a negative outlook towards aids, auditory brainstem implant, or ABIs, like the recently developed flexible platinum implant are designed to attach directly to the auditory brainstem. As a permanent neuroprosthetic implant, these may eventually each a standard where wearing an external aid becomes unnecessary, while better working to address the underlying issue.

hearing aid

The new implants have already undergone successful lab trials in mice, and a working human-sized prototype already exists. Currently, the research and development of the device are being by Stéphanie Lacour’s team at EPFL’s Laboratory for Soft BioElectronic Interface in collaboration with clinicians from Massachusetts Eye and Ear, and Harvard Medical School. The scientists working on the project are currently conducting further research before beginning human trials.

In human patients, these devices could be used to restore hearing completely where only partial sound perception might have been possible before. The researchers are also hopeful that similar devices could be used in the brain, spine, and even peripheral nerves, where they could be used to stimulate or record neural activity and treat a whole host of neurological diseases.

Do you think flexible silicone-wrapped ABIs are the future of hearing restoration? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Images are courtesy of Pixabay.