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Radical Idea of Implanting Tiny Electrodes to the Deaf

Scientists pursued the idea of implanting tiny electronic hearing devices in the inner ear to help profoundly deaf people. An alternative that promised superior results was implanting a device directly in the auditory nerve.

Now, however, scientists have shown in animals that its possible to implant a tiny, ultra-thin electrode array in the auditory nerve that can successfully transmit a wide range of sounds to the brain. The studies took place at the University of Michigan Kresge Hearing Research Institute.

If the idea pans out in further animal and human studies, profoundly and severely deaf people would have another option that could allow them to hear low-pitched sounds common in speech, converse in a noisy room, identify high and low voices, and appreciate music areas where cochlea implants, though a boon, have significant limitations.

In nearly every measure, these work better than cochlear implants, says U-M researcher John C. Middlebrooks. He led a study requested by the National Institutes of Health to re-evaluate the potential of auditory nerve implants. Middlebrooks is a U-M Medical School professor of otolaryngology and biomedical engineering. He collaborated with Russell L. Snyder of the University of California, San Francisco and Utah State University.

The possible auditory nerve implants likely would be suitable for the same people who are candidates today for cochlear implants: the profoundly deaf, who cant hear at all, and the severely deaf, whose hearing ability is greatly reduced. Also, the animal studies suggest that implantation of the devices has little impact on normal hearing, offering the possibility of restoring sensitivity to high frequencies while preserving remaining low-frequency hearing.

Middlebrooks says its possible that the low power requirements of the auditory nerve implants might lead to development of totally implantable devices. That would be an improvement
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