Science

New Breakthrough Allows Deaf People To Hear Through Their Tongues

Being deaf is one of the most severe disabilities a person can experience. Many scientific breakthroughs have helped turn the tide in the fight against deafness. Most current devices, like cochlear implants, have their own drawbacks. They need to be surgically implanted and can cost up to $100,000. Who has that kind of money lying around?

An alternative, developed by scientists at Colorado State Universityapproaches the issue of deafness in an interesting way. They've invented a device that allows people to "hear" with their tongues. The system doesn't restore hearing but converts sounds into distinct patterns of vibration that can be felt by the tongue. Wild! The technology is less expensive than cochlear implants and requires no surgery. Just a tongue.

Cochlear implants work by bypassing damaged parts of the ear, thus directly stimulating the auditory nerve. Sounds are picked up by a microphone and then analyzed by a speech processor. The CSU device works in a similar way, but it picks up sounds in a different way. A bluetooth-enabled earpiece transmits the sounds it picks up to a processor that converts them into patterns of impulses.

“Some people suggest it feels like the sensation of having champagne bubbles or Pop Rocks on their tongue,” engineer and project leader John Williams told PopSci.

Once the brain and tongue have been taught to work together, you've pretty much taught your tongue to hear.

“We’re able to discriminate between fine points that are just a short distance on the tongue,” Leslie Stone-Roy told PopSci. “It’s similar in terms of your fingertips; that’s why we use fingers to read Braille. The tongue is similar in that it has high acuity.”

The device is expensive now, but researchers believe the cost will eventually be whittled down to $2,000 or less, making it much more affordable for the hearing impaired.

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