November 24, 2008
Infrared Hearing Implants Create Optimism
An ear implant that works by aiming infrared light into the inner ear is being explored by U.S. researchers.
Nerves located in the ear can be moved by light in addition to sound, and a research group from Northwestern University, Illinois, is trying to capitalize on this idea.
However, the UK charity RNID announced that a mechanism for human use will take years to create.
For many extremely deaf patients, the advances of cochlear implants in recent years have been a significant change.
The system operates by putting about 20 electrodes to rouse the nerves located in the inner ear, but it has its several restrictions. Users report that it is hard to listen fully to music or conversations in a raucous situation.
Dr Claus-Peter Richter from Northwestern supposes that a result revealed by chance might hold the key to an improved implant. Surgeons who used lasers to execute an operation in the ear found that they were able to motivate the nerve cells in the ear to relay electrical communication back to the brain.
Precisely why this occurs is uncertain, even though Dr Richter insists that the heat that goes with the light is responsible.
He shone infrared light on the neurons of hearing-impaired guinea pigs, while calculating electrical movements in a nerve "relay" amid the inner ear and the brain. The frequency "maps" created this way is a strong suggestion of the superiority of information going to the brain.
Dr Richter is currently running over new ways to create fiber optic devices that might target light in the inner ear.
A spokesperson for RNID stated that cochlear implants had "transformed the lives" of many, and, in presumption, this study may create a new way to advance the technology.
"One of the things that is really interesting - if it does work - is that the specificity from a laser is really quite exciting. One of the big problems with cochlear implants is their lack of specificity.
"This could be a major breakthrough, but we have to remember that even if that true, the time between demonstrating this and developing a device will be quite significant, perhaps as much as 10 years."
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