Hearing aids have helped countless people around the world to hear who otherwise would not be able to to a functional degree – but there are still those out there who are beyond the help of these devices. Furthermore, the implants have serious drawbacks requiring an invasive surgical procedure that also happens to cost a lot of money.
But hope comes in the strange form of a device that may allow the hard of hearing to regain their ability to detect sound – using their tongue. The system works by ‘converting’ sounds into patterns of vibrations that are then sent through the tongue. The patient would then be able to decipher the vibrations – along with any hearing they did have remaining – in order to work out what sounds were. At first patients will struggle but with time they adapt and learn to recognize words and other things instinctively.
This is due to a process called ‘brain plasticity’ which enables our brains to completely change shape in response to the way we use it. Cellists for instance have much larger brain areas corresponding to the tips of their fingers and also have much more acute senses there too as a result. This device will take advantage of this innate ability of the brain to adapt and in many ways will work similarly to brail – again ‘recoding’ information from a different sense to be interpreted by touch. The tongue is the perfect candidate thanks to the many nerve endings.
The device might sound pretty strange but it has a number of impressive benefits over cochlear implants. Not only would this technology be much cheaper but it would also remove the need for invasive surgery. Of course it might be a little to enjoy over dinner though, so it has its own drawbacks too!