American researchers have developed a prototype cochlear implant which would be entirely internal, with no visible hardware on the outside of the head.
The advance is a result of collaboration between MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories and teams from Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.
Current cochlear implant technology requires an external transmitter, which is made up of a magnetic coil, cable, microphone and power source. These are available in a variety of colours and designs, but are always on the outside of the head, connected to the internal device via a magnet.
The new design has no need for an external microphone, as the device uses the naturally occurring ‘microphone’ of the inner ear; the ossicles. The ossicles are small bones inside the ear which vibrate when sound is present. The device would sense these vibrations and change them into electrical signals, which the cochlear implant can process as sound.
The main breakthrough towards fully-internal implants came with the development of a low-power processing chip, which can be recharged wirelessly. It would be able to run for approximately eight hours after being charged. The team have also developed a prototype charger which runs from mobile phones, and recharges the implant processor in two minutes.
One of the team said; “The idea with this design is that you could use a phone, with an adapter, to charge the cochlear implant, so you don’t have to be plugged in. Or you could imagine a smart pillow, so you charge overnight, and the next day, it just functions.”
Another key development was reducing how much power the device needed to function, so that there would be no need for the large external batteries. The new design requires 20-30% less power than current cochlear implants.
If the fully-internal CI becomes a reality, it could throw up new issues for deaf people. Cochlear implants have been the source of intense debate within the deaf community since they were introduced.
By Emily Howlett
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