Alliance for Person-Centered Accessible Technologies

an IGERT program developed by ASU & CSULB

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The new age of Cochlear Implants

Via Patrick McGurrin

The first electrical stimulation of the auditory nerve responsible for our auditory processing first occurred in the early 1950s. Since that time, the development and utilization of the cochlear implant has peaked, aiding any and all users who have issues with hearing due to damage to the auditory system. To recap the specifications of today’s current cochlear implant, the device involves an implanted electrode array, and an external receiver, transmitter, microphone, and speech processor. While this sounds like a hefty bit of hardware to be connected to the area behind a person’s head, the device itself is relatively small and functions quite well to replace the damaged portion of a person’s auditory system. 

Take a second to imagine what it would be like to operate a cochlear implant without any external hardware. The device would be functional, yet invisible. A group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has paved the way for this new cochlear implant design. The group, the Microsystems Technology Laboratory, has done some innovative research alongside physicians at Massachusetts’s Eye and Ear Infirmary to develop a low-power signal-processing chip. This novel chip would allow the cochlear implant to be contained completely within the skull. The exciting new design would use the inner ear canal, which is intact in most patients, to act as a channel to capture sound in the same manner as a person would who has no hearing impairment. Importantly, this would alleviate the need for the microphone, processer, and other external components.

MIT’s design necessitates two important questions. Firstly, how do we power it? The new chip is battery powered and can be wirelessly recharged. Amazingly, the charger for the chip can be connected to a cell phone to fully recharge the device in about 2 minutes. Secondly, how long does the power supply last? The research team estimates that the average battery life will be approximately 8 hours. However, the ease of recharge makes this somewhat short duration very manageable. The aforementioned points are a perfect example of person-centered design, as users can recharge their device quickly and easily anytime they have access to their cell phone and a wireless signal. This minimizes any concerns for the device running out of batteries during a long workday or out with friends or family and thus is very practical for daily use. Related to this idea of person-centeredness, the new design allows the user to leave behind any social stigma that may be attached to a person who uses an assistive technology device. However, I think it’s important to remember that we should not require an invisible technology to escape social stigma attached to such a device.  

The research team, led by Dr. Marcus Yip, will present their chip in a paper they presented recently at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference. Check out the paper for more information.