Advanced Bionic Ears Offer Hope for the Profoundly Deaf

While much has long been available to assist those with varying degrees of hearing impairment, it is only with the development of the so-called advanced bionic ears, that any effective help became available for patients affected by profound deafness. Though the noun translated from Ancient Greek simply means lifelike, the science now known as bionics is often defined as a fusion of biology and electronics in which the latter is used to augment or to repair some function of the former. The terms biomimicry and biomimetics are also used sometimes to describe artificial processes that have been designed to imitate natural ones.

Television fans form the ‘70s may recall the ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ series in which the hero, Steve Austin, was virtually rebuilt with electromechanical body parts following a near-fatal flying accident. Endowed by his surgery with the ability to run at phenomenal speeds and to perform impossible feats of strength, he was also blessed with enhanced hearing – the only ability actually based on an existing technology of that time.

Today, in the field of modern audiology, this fusion of electronics with a biological function, in this case hearing is used when performing a surgical procedure that is known as cochlear implantation. The miniature components involved interact to convert sound waves no longer detectable by the patient’s damaged receptors into electrical impulses that are then interpreted by the brain as modified, but understandable, sounds.

This type of intervention is not offered for cosmetic purposes in order to conceal components from view. It is performed strictly for those suffering from severe to profound, bilateral, sensorineural hearing loss but who still have a functional auditory nerve. 

In assessing a patient’s suitability for advanced bionic ears, several other factors are routinely taken into account also. Among the more important of these are having had some experience of a world without sound while still retaining good speech and communication skills and yet unable to benefit from even the most powerful convention hearing aids.

At first it might appear that the inability to speak might preclude young children from this procedure. However, providing that the family is willing and able to provide support and to assist the efforts of a speech therapist, there is no reason not to proceed if the other criteria are met.

In fact even adults that meet all of the criteria must also be realistic with regard to the expected results of a cochlear implantation. Since the sounds that will now be experienced differ from those of natural speech, these subjects too will require some post-implantation rehabilitation. Once again, the efforts of a specialised therapist are likely to take effect far more quickly where the patient has the support of family and friends.

The procedure involves embedding a receiver/stimulator beneath the skin with connection to an array of electrodes in the cochlea. Sounds are gathered from one or more microphones, processed and transmitted wirelessly from small concealed external components and when received, the resulting electrical impulses create sounds that are then conducted via the auditory nerve to the hearing centres in the brain for interpretation.

Underlying research spanning more than 5 decades has led to a far greater understanding of auditory physiology without which these advanced bionic ears would not exist. 

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