Bionic Hearing

Q: What is a bionic ear? 

A: A bionic ear (or cochlear implant) is an artificial hearing device, designed to produce hearing sensations by electrically stimulating nerves inside the inner ear.

It consists of an internal implant device, which is placed under the patient's skin behind the ear during an implant operation, and an external sound processor which sits behind the ear and is worn externally, similar to a hearing aid.

Q: How does the bionic ear work? 

A: The sound processor captures sounds and converts them into digital code. The sound processor then transmits the digitally coded sound through the coil to the implant just under the skin.

The implant converts the digitally coded sound to electrical impulses and sends them along the electrode array, which is positioned in the cochlea (the spiral shaped inner ear).

The implant’s electrodes stimulate the cochlea’s hearing nerve which sends the impulses to the brain where they are interpreted as sound.

Q: Who benefits from a bionic ear? 

A: The bionic ear benefits people who have severe, profound or total hearing loss in both ears. Under some circumstances it can also be used in combination with a hearing aid.

Q: How many people use a bionic ear? 

A: The Australian bionic ear, manufactured by Cochlear Ltd, has provided the gift of hearing to more than 250,000 people world-wide.

Q: How is the Bionics Institute working to improve the bionic ear?

A: Research at the Bionics Institute is aimed at improving the performance of cochlear implants and hearing aids, enabling their application to many more adults and children with hearing impairments.

Specific projects include sound processing research to enhance the perception of music and speech, the development of techniques to improve the function of the hearing nerve, and investigation of how the brain responds to long-term electrical stimulation.

Bionic Vision

Q: What is a bionic eye? 

A: A bionic eye mimics the function of the retina to restore sight for those with severe vision loss. It uses a retinal implant connected to a video camera to convert images into electrical impulses that activate remaining retinal cells which then carry the signal back to the brain.

Q: How will the bionic eye work? 

A: A video camera fitted to a pair of glasses will capture and process images. These images are sent wirelessly to a bionic implant at the back of the eye which stimulates dormant optic nerves to generate points of light (phosphenes) that form the basis of images in the brain.

Q: When will the bionic eye be trialed? 

A: A prototype bionic eye was implanted in three research volunteers with retinitis pigmentosa (the most common cause of inherited blindness) in 2012.

Q: Who will be eligible for the bionic eye? 

A: The bionic eye aims to restore basic visual cues to people suffering from eye diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa, which is a genetic eye condition.

Q: Who is working on the bionic eye project? 

A: Bionic Vision Australia (BVA) is a consortium of world-leading Australian researchers, collaborating to develop an advanced bionic eye. It brings together people from the Bionics Institute, The University of Melbourne, The University of New South Wales, the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) and the National Information Communications Technology Australia (NICTA).

The Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital is the clinical partner of the BVA collaboration and was the site of Australia's first surgical implantations of a bionic eye prototype.

Q: Why is the Bionics Institute working on the bionic eye project? 

A: The institute is using its engineering expertise and its experience in safety and biocompatibilty studies to establish safe surgical procedures and effective electrical stimulation strategies to improve vision.


Q: What are neural implants? 

A: Neural implants monitor brain activity, detect abnormal activity and prevent its formation by focal electrical stimulation of the brain, without a health professional intervening. Research into neural implants aims to develop sophisticated bionic devices that can sense changes occurring in the human body and deliver an appropriate treatment automatically. This technology will provide a platform that could be used to develop similar devices for multiple neurological disorders.

Q: Why is the Bionics Institute working on neural implants? 

A: The technology and expertise required in the creation of a medical bionics device can be used in multiple applications. In the Bionics Institute’s neurobionics research program, implantable devices are being developed to detect, predict and suppress abnormal neural activity in the brain.

The main focus of this work is to alleviate the debilitating symptoms of neurological conditions that do not respond to conventional therapies, including epilepsy and motor disorders (Parkinson's disease and essential tremor). This work is being done in collaboration with clinical colleagues at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne and Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Q: What is epilepsy? 

A: Epilepsy is a disorder of brain function that takes the form of recurring convulsive or non-convulsive seizures. Approximately one per cent of the world’s population suffers from epilepsy and of these, 30-40 per cent have uncontrolled seizures despite medications. People who are unable to control their seizures experience a drop in quality of life, often self-limiting their activities and social interactions, and there is an enormous financial cost of ongoing medical treatments and hospitalisations.

Q: How do neural implants relate to epilepsy? 

A: Researchers at the Bionics Institute are developing an active strategy to monitor the brain by measuring responses to low-intensity electrical stimulation. It has the potential to contribute to clinically relevant outcomes, such as the development of an implantable therapeutic device for seizure prevention and improved methods for localising pathological neural tissue.

Additionally, researchers are developing a portable epilepsy treatment device. The device is capable of monitoring the electrical activity of the brain via electrodes. If abnormal activity is detected, a therapeutic waveform will be delivered in order to stop the epileptic event. Such a device has the potential to offer new therapeutic solutions to many sufferers of epilepsy world-wide.​


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