The Hearing Aid Of The Future Might Be A Retainer

A former NASA scientist is trying to create a cheaper and safer alternative to cochlear implants.


Engineer John Williams used to work from NASA, but after successfully getting electric-propulsion to work from space, he set out in search of new adventures. After being diagnosed with tinnitus, he decided to focus on hearing aid technologies, and in doing so, came upon a non-traditional way to help hearing disabled people: through their tongues. Williams, who is now an associate professor at Colorado State University, along with graduate student JJ Moritz at and neuroscientist Leslie Stone-Roy, is building a device that could transmit electric impulses representing sound into the sensitive nerves of the tongue, teaching people to “hear” with their tongues as their brain learns to decode the electric stimulation.


The researchers say the device could resemble a regular retainer in shape and use. To use it, a patient would slip it into the back of their mouths over their teeth. The device would send electrical impulses to very specific parts of the mouth, so that when the tongue is pressed to the roof of the mouth, they are delivered to the most sensitive spots. After a few months of training, people would begin to be able to decode the impulses as speech. This miraculous method works through what neuroscientists call sense substitution, the same principle of brain plasticity that allows blind people to interpret braille instead of reading.

To make this technology work, Williams and Moritz are attempting to map the nerves of the tongue, determining whether everyone’s nerves are the same, or if each of us has a unique distribution in our mouths. Depending on their results, the technology may be uniform, or could require a custom device for every patient.

Boing Boing explains why this technology could surpass cochlear implants in effectiveness and cost worthiness:

Although cochlear implants are considered the most successful medical prosthesis in the world, they are far from perfect.

Doctors insert the devices into the ear structure near the auditory nerve. The surgical procedure has inherent risks and can cause additional damage to the sensory cells in the inner ear that transmit sound to the auditory nerve.

Cochlear implants aren’t for everyone. They tend to work better on younger patients such as infants with some hearing loss. Candidates must have most of their auditory system intact for the implants to work.

Conversely, tongue-hearing should be both cheaper and safer than cochlear implants, which, when you take into account the follow ups and tests cost about $100,000.

[via Boing Boing]

About the author

I'm a writer living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Interests include social justice, cats, and the future.