Though cochlear implants have been the go-to product for people with major hearing loss, a new, more subtle device is lately making noise. These devices, sometimes nicknamed “bionic ears,” are implanted under the skin to allow sound conduction and amplification without any equipment visible on the outer ear.

Bone to Hear, the Mechanisms of the Cochlear Implant

The science behind the “bionic ear” differs from cochlear implants at one crucial point: the middle ear. In the middle ear of healthy individuals, three small bones called the malleus, incus and stapes vibrate from sound waves. They percuss the cochlea, which contains fluid and hair cells. Rippling of the cochlear fluid and hair cells produces an electrical stimulus for the auditory nerve. If the cochlea is dysfunctional, sound waves have no effect on the auditory nerve.

Cochlear Implant vs. Bionic Ear

Cochlear implants have an external component worn on the outer ear that captures sound with a microphone. The sound is converted and transmitted to an internal component, the implant, which is under the skin. The implant sends electrical information directly to the auditory nerve, bypassing damaged parts of the ear that impair hearing.

While cochlear implants bypass these bones, new devices focus on them.  A sensor placed under the skin picks up vibrations from the middle ear bones and converts them to electrical signals, which are sent to a sound processor in the cochlea to stimulate the auditory nerve.

Cochlear Implant as a National Sensation

The first of these devices, the Esteem, was marketed in America by Envoy Medical Corp. and gained Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in 2009. It was featured on CBS news’ The Doctors, and one of the first patients to receive the Esteem implant made the news in Phoenix, AZ in January.

Engineers at the University of Utah and Case Western Reserve University developed another version of the “bionic ear” and published their findings in the journal Transactions on Biomedical Engineering in 2012. The research was conducted on four cadavers, so sound output from the microphones went to speakers instead of a speech processor. Trials in live subjects are yet to come; meanwhile, researches recorded what Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony sounds like from the speakers connected to their hearing device.

by Estie Neff

8 responses to “The Bionic Ear: an Overview of the Cochlear Implant

  1. I was born deaf in my right ear have never heard in it ,my left ear I was partially deaf in. Age 7 this was discovered. I read lips very well. Over the years my hearing in my left ear has decreased dramatically. I ha e been told that the next step for me is the cochlear. I am really active and would not like the devices sticking out of my head. Very Interested in this new biopic ear

  2. Can intense hearing aid feedback cause more hearing loss?

  3. Very valid, pithy, sucitncc, and on point. WD.

  4. I am intensely interested in the work being done a U of Utah and Case Western. I am a former professional violinist (I have a Masters Degree from The Cleveland Institute of Music/Case Western Reserve) with a rather recent severe hearing loss in both ears. I have been told that I would be a candidate for a cochlear implant, but as a very active person I don’t look forward to having knobs on my head. Thank you for working to find a more discreet, convenient alternative. By the way, I can’t hear much, but that ain’t Beethoven 9! Try Beethoven 5.

  5. I have severe hearing loss in both ears, and has time goes on it seems to be going down. I’ve been hard of hearing since birth. Today I wear two Belltones and with without them I could not hear anything. So does insurance covery any of this implants?

  6. My father has no hearing in one ear and minimal in the other. Based in the uk, very interested to hear more.

  7. Have hearing loss in both ears. One is completely damaged due to surgery. The other is 90 precent gone. I’m interested in keeping up with this info. Thank you.

  8. Hi just wonder about this to and like to get one to that I am deaf here to my both ears are deaf when I was three year old to so now used to wear two hear aids to but today I wear one and like to get one of those Bionic ear cochlear Implants like to have that soon.

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