SALT LAKE CITY — A group of Utah researchers is making inroads into technology that may help deaf people hear.

Engineers from the University of Utah are part of a global team of researchers who received a $9.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to create and produce a surgically implantable device that will one day allow the deaf and hard of hearing to understand and be able to listen to more precise sound than previously developed hearing aids.

This system will use a new version of a method that was originally developed by U. biomedical engineering Professor Emeritus Richard Normann that could send and receive electrical brain signals, a news release stated. The new procedure — funded through the five-year NIH grant — could help people who typically would not be candidates for traditional cochlear implants, explained U. electrical and computer engineering professor Florian Solzbacher, the lead U. researcher working on the team.

He noted that cochlear implants have been the primary technology used to treat scores of deaf patients for more than 30 years. The implant uses a tiny device inserted in the cochlea — a spiral cavity of the inner ear that produces nerve impulses from sound vibrations — to stimulate the auditory nerve, the release stated.

But Solzbacher said the implants don’t work for everyone due to variations in the anatomy of some patients or other abnormalities. He said for those patients where the cochlear implant didn’t work, the sound heard was not particularly good quality and was adversely affected by ambient noises making some sounds hard to distinguish.

“Your ability to hear in complex situations — to hear music, for example — or situations where you have lots of people speaking in a room is still very, very difficult,” he explained. Because the sound was just amplified through attachment to the patient’s auditory nerve, the lack of clarity still presented problems, he added. The new technology would greatly improve the sound quality heard by the patient, he said.

“You have much higher resolution of sound, which means you can cover more individual frequencies and have better tonal range,” says Solzbacher. “That should allow you to get more realistic hearing.”

An additional benefit of the technology is that it could be connected to already existing hearing aids that are typically utilized in cochlear implants, he said. He also noted that as a clinical product, the new technology should be designed to last approximately 30 years in the human body.

According to the release, the team will develop the technology and surgical procedure during the first three years of the grant period in an effort to verify safety and efficacy. In the last two years, the team will work on using the devices in human patients with hearing loss that otherwise would not be candidates for traditional cochlear implants, the release stated.

The research group will be composed of scientists from the University of Minnesota, The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, the Hannover Medical School in Hanover, Germany, the International Neuroscience Institute in Hanover, Germany, the Hannover Clinical Trial Center, Salt Lake City-based Blackrock Microsystems and MED-EL, an Austrian manufacturer of medical devices for hearing loss, the release stated.

Solzbacher said the technology could become widely available within the next decade and offers hope to more patients with deafness or significant hearing loss.

“This is something that’s much closer to something that helps large numbers of people,” he said.

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Jasen Lee



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