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Wednesday, 12 February 2014 12:38

Chip breakthrough helps the deaf

Written by Nick Farrell



They now have a cute earing

US boffins have come up with a new low-powered chip that offers the prospect of eliminating the bulky, visible externals of a hearing aid. Engineers in the Microsystems Technology Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) together with team members from Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary are presenting a paper about their work at the 2014 IEEE international Solid-State Circuits Conference being held in San Francisco, this week.

The technology will help those who use Cochlear implants because sensory hair cells in their cochleas, within the inner ear, do not pass on sound vibrations to the brain. The device works by electrically stimulating the auditory nerve to receive sound signals that pass from an external microphone into the ear. But the problem is that current designs mean that users have to wear a 1-inch diameter disk-shaped transmitter on the skull, attached by a wire to a microphone and power source inside what looks like a large hearing aid around the ear.

The new low-powered signal-processing chip could lead to a new implant design that cuts the need for any external hardware, say the researchers. The implant could be wirelessly charged - it could run for about eight hours between charges - and instead of an external microphone, it could pick up sound using the natural microphone chamber of the inner ear, which is often intact in implant users.

Anantha Chandrakasan, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, the design on the mechanism of a middle-ear implant. The idea is to pick up the sound vibrations in the delicate bones of the middle ear and instead of conveying them to the cochlea, send them to a microchip implanted in the ear that converts them to electrical signals passed to an electrode in the cochlea.

But the key was the lowering of the power requirements of the chip was the key to eliminating the need for the external skull-mounted hardware. The only downside is that such a device would require more complex surgery to implant than existing designs.

Nick Farrell

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