Cochlear implants may one day be a thing of the past as bionic research addresses hearing loss
[From the increasing use of pacemakers to keep heart beating on time to the rise of Olympian runner Oscar Pistorius (a.k.a. "Blade Runner"), a double-amputee who uses two prosthetic lower legs called "blades," the merging of human and machine continues apace. In this month's series, "Bionic Man," 13.7 takes a broad look at the history, evolution, ethics and impact of prosthetic and bionic engineering, nanotechnology, cybernetics and technological singularity.]
Hearing loss is a common ailment. In 2004, according to the World Health Organization, over 275 million people worldwide had "moderate-to-profound hearing impairment."
Cochlear implants have helped those fortunate enough to afford them. Still, many people with hearing loss who could afford such a device don't want to be seen wearing one, as it has external elements, such as a microphone. According to the Center for Hearing and Communication, around 15 million people in the United States with hearing loss avoid seeking help.
But recent developments have resulted in the advent of the bionic ear, which is totally implanted inside the ear and not visible externally.
Darrin J. Young, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah, devised a way to stimulate the auditory nerve from within the ear, according to Discovery News.
Young's bionic ear features a tiny accelerometer, which picks up vibrations and sends the information to a computer chip which translates them into electrical signals. The signals are then transmitted via electrodes to the cochlea, which contains the sensory organ for hearing.
Though the researchers have only tested the device on cadavers, they know that it works. It will be a few years until tests can be done on living patients.
Could a bionic ear give humans superhuman hearing powers, like the Bionic Woman? Perhaps. But one thing's for certain: The bionic ear is just another piece of technological wizardry that is making the biological body—with all its ailments, limitations and eventual decrepitude—obsolete.
image: A tiny microphone is shown attached to a cadaver's umbo, where the eardrum (under left part of device) meets the hearing bones. The device measures about one-tenth inch by one-quarter inch. (Case Western Reserve University/University of Utah)