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Hearing Retainer May Be the (Sound) Wave of the Future

Sure, you speak with your tongue. But have you tried listening with it?

Researchers at Colorado State University are working to develop a retainer that acts as a hearing substitute.

If the team of engineers and neuroscientists is successful, the device will operate much like a cochlear implant, though here, the technology sends electrical impulses via Bluetooth to a very retainer-like mouthpiece packed with electrodes. When users press their tongues against the device, they will experience a distinct pattern of electrical impulses as a tingling or vibrating sensation.

While the tongue might not seem like the obvious choice for a conduit of sound, the muscle contains thousands of nerves that make it possible for the region of the brain devoted to interpreting touch sensations to decode complicated information. The hope is that, with training, the brain will learn to interpret specific patterns as words, thus allowing someone to “hear” with their tongue.

The team is optimistic that the cost of these retainers will be low in comparison to the $100,000 people typically shell out for cochlear implants. However, this price estimate is based on the assumption that the tongue has a standardized pattern of nerves. If so, the retainer can be one size fits all. The research team is currently conducting experiments involving participants who are asked to place an array of electrodes in their mouth, then report the strength and location of electrical impulses on their tongues. If it turns out all tongues are not created equal, then the device will need to be customized, and this will drive up costs.

And while many in the science and technology community are excited about the prospect of restoring hearing to deaf or hearing impaired people, potential recipients of this new device may be less than excited about this development. Many deaf people have been very outspoken against cochlear implants over the years, some even going so far as to say that cochlear implants are a form of “cultural genocide” to the deaf community.

John Williams, project lead and associate professor in C.S.U.’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, remains optimistic about the hearing retainer’s potential, saying: “Cochlear implants are very effective and have transformed many lives, but not everyone is a candidate. We think our device will be just as effective but will work for many more people and cost less.”

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