Although the technology is highly contentious in the deaf community, cochlear implants are frequently held up as a long-term treatment for severe and profound hearing loss – particularly in cases where ordinary hearing aids fall short.
Cochlear implants are not without their drawbacks, however. In addition to being incredibly expensive (even compared to high-end medical hearing aids), they require ongoing maintenance. And like hearing aids, there’s an electronic component that must be regularly recharged.
Contrary to popular belief, cochlear implants also do not restore hearing. They essentially bypass damaged systems, allowing the brain to process auditory information. Because this kind of audio processing is fundamentally different from ordinary hearing (and therefore fundamentally unfamiliar), a patient with a cochlear implant typically requires extensive therapy to adapt to it.
Moreover, there’s no guarantee that a cochlear implant will actually help. Although in most cases they do restore hearing to an extent, there are nevertheless some reported instances of patients whose cochlear implants did nothing for them. In essence, this means they went through the surgery and recovery for nothing.
Finally, cochlear implants are typically highly visible and make it impossible for the patient to undergo procedures such as MRIs in the future.
These inconveniences might one day be a thing of the past – alongside hearing aids as well. An innovative new technology developed by researcher Yunming Wang and their colleagues could provide an alternative in the future. A battery-free, maintenance-free means of treating hearing loss.
As reported in ACS Nano, the researchers are exploring a way to generate an artificial cochlea out of barium titanate nanoparticles coated with silicon dioxide and mixed into a conductive polymer. Upon being divided into a thin film and treated with an alkaline solution, this created a sponge-like membrane which allowed the nanoparticles to jostle and vibrate in response to sound waves, generating an electrical current in the process.
In short, they found a way to artificially mimic the functionality of the stereocilia without the use of electronic components.
To test their invention, the researchers inserted it into a human ear model and played a music file. Upon recording the electrical output and converting it into a new audio file, they found the new file was highly similar to the original.
So, to reiterate, these researchers have developed an electroconductive, self-sustaining artificial membrane that could feasibly serve as a replacement for the cochlea. While this technology is likely still decades away from seeing widespread medical use, to say that this is exciting would be putting it lightly. In the future, those who have profound hearing loss may have an option beyond surgery – simply growing a new cochlea.
So, could an artificial cochlea eventually replace cochlear implants?
To put it simply, yes – though perhaps not quite yet.
Pauline Dinnauer is the VP of Audiological Care at Connect Hearing, which provides industry-leading hearing loss, hearing testing, and hearing aid consultation across the US.