Many may have seen the popular videos of awestruck babies who had been born profoundly deaf hearing a parent say “I love you” for the first time.
These moving moments were made possible by surgically placed cochlear implants. Thanks to the devices — which have been in use since the 1980s — nearly a million people around the world have had the experience of hearing a loved one’s voice for the first time or after a period of severe auditory loss. Nevertheless, cochlear implants have some serious limitations.
“Most implant users today, if they’re implanted not long after they become deaf, can expect to understand speech pretty well in a quiet environment without competing voices around,” says UC 欧文 neuroscientist and professor of otolaryngology 约翰Middlebrooks. 更多over, a baby who is born deaf and given an implant at about 12 months of age can reasonably be expected to develop very good speech comprehension and production.
“But implant users really suffer in the presence of competing sounds,” he says. “One of the main things that helps a normal-hearing person pick a voice out of a crowd is the pitch of the voice, and implant users don’t get pitch at all. They can’t tell a man’s voice from a woman’s voice. They can’t use pitch cues to know when someone is excited or sad.”
Middlebrooks — alongside assistant professor of otolaryngology 博士。哈里森林 — is working on an implant that could eliminate this issue. The project is being funded by a five-year grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, a branch of the National Institutes of 健康. The novel device, which would enable users to detect a range of pitches, is now undergoing efficacy and safety testing. Middlebrooks is confident about receiving Food and Drug 管理 approval for the first human trials within the next five years.
Current implants have an external portion (a microphone and speech processor) and an internal portion (a transmitter and electrode array), which process sound and electrically stimulate nerve fibers in the inner ear’s snail-shaped cochlea. But the electrodes are too far away from the auditory nerve, limiting the frequencies heard by users. The new implant, which is similar in structure, precisely targets the low-frequency fibers of the auditory nerve that send pitch data.
“I’m honored to have the opportunity to work on this project that, I believe, will greatly enrich the quality of life for deaf people.”
约翰 - Middlebrooks
Middlebrooks has been developing the intraneural device since 2007, when he got promising results. “We’ve shown in animal studies that if you can stimulate the low-frequency areas selectively, you get much better transmission of the timing information that’s needed for pitch perception,” he says.
Middlebrooks understands the value of music from the perspectives of both a hearing researcher and a choir singer. “In auditory science,” he says, “I run into a lot of musicians, because they’re interested in sounds.”
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Now he hopes to retire in a few years after the implant is approved for human trials. “I’m honored to have the opportunity to work on this project that, I believe, will greatly enrich the quality of life for deaf people,” he says.