Scientist Discovery May Improve Cochlear Implants

Scientists in America have made a surprising discovery that might improve cochlear implants for deafness.

The study, by the University of Utah, used infrared light to activate heart and ear cells to increase the signals to the brain.

The findings someday may improve cochlear implants for hearing impairment as well as leading to devices to restore vision, maintain balance and treat movement disorders like Parkinson’s.


The focus of the experiment is talking to the brain with optical infrared pulses instead of electrical pulses. Optical signals- short pulses of an invisible wavelength of infrared laser light delivered via a thin, glass optical fibre – can activate heart cells and inner-ear cells related to balance and hearing.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, it also raises the possibility of developing cardiac pacemakers that use optical signals rather than electrical signals to stimulate heart cells.

Ian Curthoys of the University of Sydney, Australia, commented on the research saying it provides “stunningly bright insight” into events within inner-ear cells and “has great potential for future clinical application.”

The scientists exposed the cells to infrared light in the laboratory. The inner-ear cells are hair cells, and came from the inner-ear organ that senses motion of the head. The hair cells came from oyster toadfish, which are well-establish models for comparison with human inner ears and the sense of balance.

Richard Rabbitt, a professor of bioengineering and senior author of the heart-cell and inner-ear-cell studies published this month in The Journal of Physiology, said the research – including a related study of the cochlea last year – could lead to better cochlear implants that would use optical rather than electrical signals.

Hearing and vision implants that use optical rather than electrical signals do not have to penetrate the brain and can be implanted and left there for life.

Rabbitt’s co-authors on the inner-ear study included first author Rajguru; Dittami; Claus-Peter Richter and Agnella Matic of Northwestern University; neuroscientist Gay Holstein of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York; and neuroscientist Stephen Highstein of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.

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