In the future, those with substantial hearing loss may no longer need a doctor to surgically implant a cochlear device into their ear to restore their sense of sound.
If researchers at Colorado State University are successful, they may just pop a retainer into their mouths. The team of engineers and neuroscientists are developing a hearing device that bypasses the ear altogether and puts words in the mouth.
The technology relies on a Bluetooth-enabled earpiece to detect sound and send electrical impulses to an electrode-packed retainer that wearers press their tongue against to “hear.”
“It’s much simpler than undergoing surgery and we think it will be a lot less expensive than cochlear implants,” said John Williams, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the project lead.
Finding his tongue
Williams first conceived the idea for the device during what he calls a “research midlife crisis.”
The mechanical engineer has spent much of his career designing and building electric-propulsion systems for space travel. Though he loves the work and still conducts research in that area, Williams says many of the challenges have been overcome.
“NASA now uses electric propulsion in space,” he said. “There is more work to be done to optimize the technology, but we’ve accomplished what we set out to do.”
Williams wanted to expand his research and became interested in neuroscience and sensory substitution — training the brain to receive information from another source. (American Sign Language and Braille are both examples of sensory substitutes.)
Around the same time, Williams developed tinnitus, a constant, high-pitched ringing in his ears. Years of working around powerful vacuums used to simulate space zapped his ability to hear high frequencies.
That diagnosis led him to research cochlear implants and the pros and cons of the devices.
Williams considered all of the information and eventually hit upon his new research project: hearing with the tongue.
The tongue contains thousands of nerves and the region of the brain that interprets touch sensations from the tongue is capable of decoding complicated information.
“What we are trying to do is another form of sensory substitution,” Williams said.