Fine Tuning for Hearing Impaired

July 27, 2009 8:32:45 PM PDT
More than 36 million Americans suffer from hearing loss. Only heart disease and diabetes impact more people. Traditionally, hearing implants and other devices were one-size-fits-all. A team of researchers found a way to customize hearing devices -- opening up a whole new world for the hearing impaired.Judy Martin has only recently been able to enjoy the sweet sounds of the baby birds in her yard.

"All of a sudden, I heard all this little chattering again," Martin said. "It was astounding."

A case of the measles at age seven robbed Martin of her hearing and put her in a world of silence.

"You do get isolated," Martin said.

Three years ago, Marin got a cochlear implant, an electrical device that's implanted in her head and stimulates auditory nerves.

"It's a wonderful device, but it's not perfect," Alice Holmes, Ph.D., an audiologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, told Ivanhoe.

Some sounds are still muffled ... something engineer Lee Krause knows from personal experience. He has suffered hearing loss for 20 years and also wears an implant.

"There would be times where it just wasn't worth concentrating anymore," Krause said. "It was just too hard."

Along with two doctors, he developed software that customizes the implant to each person's hearing ability. Instead of using tones to test range, the computer uses the most common syllables in the English language. Patients repeat what they hear. The program compares the person's responses with the computer's voice. Then, it designs a setting to boost the sounds they struggle with.

"We're able to say, where is [their] error," Dr. Holmes said.

Judy's not hesitant about starting up conversations ... which may mean a lot more work for her husband.

In a study, 85 percent of patients said the optimized implant was better than the traditional model. In the future, the software could be used to design cell phones that adapt to a person's hearing abilities.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT:

University of Florida
Health Science Center
Jill Pease
(352) 273-5816
jpease@phhp.ufl.edu

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