You can usually tell when someone is wearing a hearing aid by the device sat behind one or both of their ears. But such aids can only help so much. Depending on the level of hearing impairment, conventional aids may not be enough to allow an individual to hear and understand important sounds such as those that form speech.
An alternative is to have a hearing implant, but until now the required surgery to fit them has taken several hours, making it unsuitable for the elderly–the group most affected by hearing loss. However, a solution is on the horizon in the form of a new, simple implant that can be fitted as outpatient surgery and could allow better hearing to even the most severe of impairments.
The new implant actually consists of three parts. The key implanted part is a 1.2mm electro-acoustic transducer, which is positioned at the so-called “round window,” which is where the middle and inner ear connect. It then produces “amplified mechanical vibrations” that stimulate the auditory nerve. Even though the transducer is tiny, it can reach volumes of up to 120 decibels, meaning even those with severe hearing impairment should experience a major improvement.
The other two parts of the implant are a microphone and battery contained in a casing, and the signal and power wireless transmission system that links the transducer and the microphone sections.
The image you see above is of the prototype version of the electro-acoustic transducer. The research team at the Fraunhofer Institute already have it working, but say the final version of the transducer will be round rather than square. They also need to select a suitable coating for the implant so it can survive inside the body without degrading or being rejected.
The good news is, the final version should be ready to use by next year with each implant expected to function for at least 10 years once in place.