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Deaf People Could Soon Hear… Through Their Tongues

Prototype retainer could be a more cost-effective alternative to cochlear implants

(Daniel Koebe/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Thanks to cochlear implants, there's a whole new genre of ridiculously heartwarming videos—people hearing for the first time. But stories about cochlear implants often overlook one little thing—the staggering price tag. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, it can cost up to $100,000 to purchase, implant and learn to use a cochlear device.

Now, Popular Science reports on a breakthrough that could help people with significant hearing loss regain their sense of sound for much less money. Loren Grush interviewed a team of researchers from Colorado State University with a different take on restoring hearing. Instead of relying on an expensive implanted device, their prototype combines an earpiece and a “smart retainer” that helps users get auditory information through the oh-so-sensitive tongue.

Leslie Stone-Roy, a member of the team, tells Grush that the tongue is great at transmitting tactile information to the brain. “It’s similar in terms of your fingertips; that’s why we use fingers to read Braille,” she said. “The tongue is similar in that it has high acuity.”

The device bypasses the ear altogether, putting sound inside users' mouths. Instead of relying on the auditory processing of the inner ear, the device uses a Bluetooth earpiece to transmit data to a retainer, which then helps the brain interprets sensations as sound.

As the research group explained in a news release, the earpiece converts sounds into electrical patterns and sends them to the retainer. When the wearer presses the tongue to the retainer, they pick up these distinct electrical patterns. With training, the brain learns to interpret these patterns as sound.

Not only does the device help train the brain to recognize sounds and words, but it packs much less of a financial wallop than cochlear implants. At a cost of around $2,000 with no surgery needed, the next wave of hearing restoration might well happen at the tip of the tongue.

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