Prototype Retainer Could Help Hearing-Impaired “Listen” with Their Tongues

Posted by Living Sounds

I found a very interesting article on Popular Science Website regarding hearing. Researchers are currently working on creating a device that you wear inside your mouth like a retainer that would transmit sounds through your tongue.

For individuals with significant hearing loss, cochlear implants have proven to be an incredible tool for regaining some sense of sound. Yet the small, electronic device, which works by stimulating an individual’s auditory nerve, requires both surgical implantation and a hefty wallet.

Now, in the quest to find more practical solutions for the hearing impaired, researchers at Colorado State University are turning to an unlikely organ for help: the tongue. The three-person research team has developed a Bluetooth-enabled microphone earpiece along with a smart retainer that fits on a person’s tongue. The two devices work in tandem to strengthen a partially deaf person’s ability to recognize words.

Make no mistake; the tongue is not some magical conduit to the organs in your ear. The retainer/earpiece system works by reprogramming areas of the brain, helping them to interpret various sensations on the tongue as certain words.

The process starts with the earpiece’s microphone, which takes in sounds and words from the surrounding environment. A processor converts these sounds into distinct, complex waveforms that represent individual words. The waveforms are then sent via Bluetooth to the retainer, where they are specially designed to stimulate the tongue.

Utilizing an array of electrodes, the retainer excites a distinct pattern of somatic nerves (those related to touch) on the tongue, depending on which waveform it receives. The electrodes excite the nerves just enough to cause them to fire their own action potentials.

According to Leslie Stone-Roy, one of the researchers on the team, the team chose the tongue because if its hypersensitive ability to discern between tactile sensations. With lots of time and practice, the retainer helps to strengthen the brain’s ability to recognize certain words. For example, every time the microphone hears the word “ball,” the retainer excites the same pattern of nerves on the tongue. Over time, the brain learns to associate that specific tongue sensation with the word “ball,” making it easier to recognize the word in the future.

The researchers compare their technique to the strategy behind reading Braille. With practice, a blind individual can learn to easily connect a pattern of bumps with a letter or word. It’s the same concept for their device, but instead of consciously memorizing which word matches up with which pattern, the brain subconsciously associates the various tongue patterns with the different sounds that are being uttered in real time. “We’re using sound information instead of symbolic information,” says JJ Moritz, a CSU graduate student and research team member.

The researchers note, however, that their device is best suited for individuals who are not completely deaf; that way the device can strengthen the faint sounds they are already capable of hearing.

*The above information was taken from PUTTING THE WORDS RIGHT IN YOUR MOUTH

By Loren Grush Popular Science Magazine Jan 14, 2015

Klinton Pilling BC-HIS
Board Certified in Hearing Instrument Sciences
Registered Hearing Aid Practitioner

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