University of Minnesota researchers and their international team will lead a project to improve implants for people who are deaf or severely hard-of-hearing.
The team recently received a $9.7 million grant for the next five years from the National Institutes of Health’s BRAIN Initiative. Their research focuses primarily on improving cochlear implants and surgeries for people who are deaf or have partial hearing loss.
The cochlear implant is a hearing device for those experiencing severe to profound hearing loss or deafness. The team hopes to improve on current technologies, said Hubert Lim, lead researcher on the grant.
“It's enabled people to hear, at least, quite well in quiet environments and also integrate into mainstream society,” Lim said.
Over the next three years, the team will develop the technology, optimize it for the auditory nerve, validate its safety and prepare for surgical insertion, Lim said.
Some individuals have trouble with current technology, so the team hopes to create an improved implant that attaches directly to the auditory nerve. This puts an emphasis on the brain science of deafness.
“Once there's noise in the background, or there's more complicated inputs, then the performance [of cochlear implants] can degrade substantially,” Lim said. “One of the ongoing hypotheses … is that we don't have enough channels of information being sent to the brain.”
The researchers will begin human trials in the final two years of the project in Hanover, Germany, Lim said.
Early days of cochlear implants saw some controversy, said Andrew Oxenham, co-lead of the research team.
There were concerns that the implants would remove recipients — especially children — from the deaf community. There were also concerns that the implants would be insufficient in integrating them into the hearing community.
Oxenham said cochlear implants work “extremely well” and are successful at improving the quality of life for children born hard-of-hearing.
"The children … generally do very well with cochlear implants and are able to integrate into schools and, in turn, lead very fulfilling lives," he said.
Erin O'Neill, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Psychology, understands why a child may forego cochlear implants if they are surrounded by a community of people who use American Sign Language.
O’Neill experienced sudden, profound hearing loss at the age of 22 and immediately decided to pursue cochlear implantation. However, hearing and daily communication with the implants can be “exhausting,” she said via email to the Minnesota Daily. “Much more so than I would imagine communicating using ASL would be for those born into the deaf community.”
She said the BRAIN Initiative is an important step forward for individuals with profound hearing loss. Even though today’s implants restore a sense of hearing, they can be ineffective in noisy environments or for music perception.
"I do think that a newly designed auditory implant may be our best shot at improving sound quality and reducing the listening effort for individuals with profound hearing loss," she said.