Thursday, March 24, 2011

Cochlear Implants: Part 3

Cochlear implants are not immune to technological advances. The first attempt at a cochlear implant was made by Alessandro Volta (for whom the "volt" was named). He placed metal rods in his ear canals and connected them to an electric circuit! I'm not sure I'm that brave...
Without going into too much history, I'll just say that as technology progressed, numerous designs were attempted and improvements were constantly being made to the cochlear implant...and it still continues to improve.

The latest cochlear implant design is called "The Epic," which is manufactured by Epic Biosonics. This device is going to be completely implantable--no external components! The microphone will be placed under the skin in the ear canal and the speech processor, once a big box powered by two AA batteries, will be implanted under the skin behind the ear. The design eliminates the need for a transmitting coil, as the sound will go directly from the speech processor to the electrode array in the cochlea.

The Epic will measure 3x5 centimeters and will weigh less than 3 grams--that would be roughly the size of a flash-drive (a little wider) and weighs roughly as much as three paperclips! A huge advantage to such a small and lightweight device is that it can be implanted into infants--an enormous benefit, especially in regard to speech/language development.

Other awesome advantages to a fully implantable device are that the wearer can swim, walk in the rain, takes showers, etc. without having to remove the device and go without hearing during such activities. Although these people still need to be careful about their head while physically active, they are able to participate in physical activities without having to worry about the transmitter falling off (the part that was held on by a magnet) or the processor falling out of their pocket/off their ear. The Epic is supposed to have as many as 48 electrodes (previous versions only had 16-24), which gives the wearer much clearer sound.

Finally, my favorite part about this device: the battery. There are actually two batteries: one internal and one external. The internal battery is designed to last a lifetime--no replacements needed! One concern about internal batteries was the use of liquid electrolyte, which if leaked, could be harmful. The Epic's battery, however, uses advanced technology that does not require liquid electrolyte. The battery only needs to be charged about 1-2 hours for a whole week--and this is where the external battery come in. To charge the internal battery, you use the external battery to transmit the charge across the skin using radio frequency rather that needing wires! How cool is that!!!

I currently do not personally know anyone who wears a cochlear implant (although I have in the past). But I think this device is so cool! I am always amazed at how far technology has brought us and cannot wait to see where it will go next. If anyone reading this has experiences with cochlear implants, please share by leaving a comment. For some reason, this topic fascinates me, and I would love to hear what you have to say!

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