More than 100,000 people worldwide depend on cochlear implants, a sophisticated multi-electrode device that restores functional hearing for individuals with hearing handicaps. Considered the most successful neural prosthesis by many, these implants are currently the only medical intervention that returns partial hearing to a totally deafened person via electric stimulation of the residual auditory nerve.
Fan-Gang Zeng, Ph.D., an INRF scientist and leading team member, is both the Research Director in the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, and Professor in Anatomy and Neurobiology, Biomedical Engineering, and Cognitive Sciences. Zeng is actively working on cochlear implant research, collaborating with his team to continue helping inexpensively improve hearing for certain ear patients. The development of these implants command attention from multidisciplines in engineering, neuroscience, and cognitive sciences, with the enabling technologies of computational biology, nanotechnology, and tissue engineering.
Implant candidacy, now expanded to include infants as young as three months old, help children and adults who have significant functional residual hearing, particularly at low frequencies. Zeng and his team of scientists at the INRF utilize a systems and modeling approach to better understand how the ear and brain work together to process sounds, especially in human speech and music. Their laboratory is equipped with state-of-the-art signal processing software and hardware that allows precise generation, control, and presentation of acoustic stimuli including tones, noises, speech, and music sounds.
Although individual performance variability is still high, an average implant user can talk on the phone in a quiet environment. Rapid advances in nano and biomimetic technology are positioned to make significant changes in the next-generation cochlear implant that will improve the overall functional and physical performance for the patient. New features of the implants will include improved signal processing strategies working together with hearing aid technology, bilateral cochlear implants, and combined acoustic and electric stimulation. This technology will have the ability to remove, encode, and deliver significant acoustic features, including components such as speech recognition in noise, music appreciation, sound localization, and sound segregation.