Cochlear implants help individual with nerve damage type hearing losses to hear better. A surgical procedure attaches wires to the nerves in the brain that perceive hearing signals. The signals normally come through the auditory canal, cause the eardrum to vibrate, and move three tiny bones in the middle ear. The movement of the bones stimulates hairs in the cochlea which sends signals to the brain that are translated into the sounds we hear.
Cochlear implants do not improve hearing for all individuals, just those with specific types of nerve damage. But with early intervention and diagnosis of hearing losses even in babies, the surgery can help affected individuals perceive sound and develop language at a pace more akin to non-hearing impaired children. Individual who may receive the implant later in life, or after an incident that destroys hearing nerve cells, may have some or almost all of their sense of hearing restored, so communication is easier.
The operation is serious and complicated. It involves invading the rain and inserting wires that attach to parts of the brain. Now, researchers in Australia have broken several barriers and found a way that may help regrow damaged nerve cells so some individuals can eventually hear better naturally.
After scientists introduced a gene therapy solution, a modified cochlear implant used electrical pulses to deliver the treatment directly to auditory nerve cells. That successfully re-generated so-called neurotrophins in animals, which in turn aided nerve development and significantly improved the implant's effect. Such therapy could one day help the hearing-impaired to pick up sounds better, especially the subtle tones in music.
There's a long ways to go prior to human trials, however, since it was only effective in the hamsters for a short time. But it could one day be included as part of cochlear implant therapy and even help other nerve-related conditions, like Parkinson's disease or depression.
Cochlear implant surgery has improved in other ways, too. The technology is becoming slightly less invasive and more effective at simulating sound. A new version developed by the University of Michigan is based on thin-film electrodes to allow for easier and deeper insertion, and allowing for a greater range of simulated frequencies with 128 stimulating sites as opposed to the usual 16 or 22 of traditional implants. The pneumatic insertion tool to snake the implant into the ear also keeps the implant from causing any further damage to the cochlear wall. The device is currently being tested on guinea pigs and cats, and should be available to humans in four or five years.
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