If your hearing isn’t what is used to be, you’re hardly alone – according to the Hearing Loss Association of America, roughly one in five adults suffer from some degree of hearing loss. To think of it another way, this figure equates to approximately 48 million people. A new device could one day offer relief to those living with reduced hearing, though not exactly in the way in which you would expect.
From the Ear to the Tongue
The notion of using electronic devices to alleviate hearing loss is nothing new, as cochlear implants have been available for decades. But imagine that a product could use the tongue to do something similar? Believe or not, such an alternative could eventually be a reality.
Such a machine is currently being developed by a team from Colorado State University (CSU). While still a prototype, these researchers believe that their device has the potential to use nerves in the tongue to help users hear sound. The prototype is made up of two major parts; one is an earpiece fitted with both an external microphone and speech processor. The other cog in the machine is an electrode-filled retainer, a piece of equipment that generates vibrations when placed against the tongue’s surface.
A Quick Trip
Though this technology is new, the way it functions is not difficult to describe. First, the microphone in the earpiece absorbs words and other sounds moving through the air. The role of analyzing this incoming data belongs to the speech processor, which transforms it into complex and distinct electronic impulses. These impulses are then transmitted via wireless technology to the retainer; in turn, the retainer stimulates certain nerves inside the tongue. The tongue then vibrates in response to such stimulations.
The researchers note that vibration patterns induced by specific words do not change; instead, this auditory input stimulates the same nerves in the same pattern each and every time. As a result, the CSU team believes that the brain will eventually learn to connect vibration patterns to individual words.
You can think of this device as a sort of Braille-like system for the brain. Rather than associating bumps with words, the machine causes the brain to match sounds with the movements of the tongue.
More Work to Do
This product still has a long way to go before it can be sold commercially. For one thing, the CSU team still needs to identify the location of all of the tongue’s nerves. As things now stand, researchers know relatively little about the network of nerves that run through this organ. In addition, it is not yet conclusively known which areas of the tongue are responsive to electrical signals. It may well be that the answer to this question varies on a person to person basis.
The researchers stress that their device is not intended to help those who are completely unable to hear, but instead is designed for people who have suffered serious hearing loss. Ultimately, the CSU team hopes to design a product not only capable of improving hearing capabilities, but one that can also be tailor-made for individual recipients.