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Improving clarity of sound for cochlear implant users

Improving clarity of sound for cochlear implant users

Researchers are investigating how light can be used to improve the way bionic devices interact with the nervous system  

  • Bionics Institute researchers are investigating how a combination of electricity and light stimulation could improve sound and enjoyment of music for people with a cochlear implant. 
  • This involves the use of gene therapy to introduce light sensitive molecules into nerves to make them responsive to light. 
  • This shows great promise, not just for cochlear implants, but for a range of medical devices where the key shortcomings are excessive spread of electrical current or side-effects due to lack of selectivity. 

Watch a 2 minute video on our hearing therapeutics research

Why do cochlear implants need improvement?

The sound heard through a cochlear implant is very different to natural hearing. 

While most people using a cochlear implant are able to understand speech and make sense of other sounds with relative ease, people can struggle to hear well if there’s a lot of background noise and music can sound distorted and often unpleasant.

Many of these issues stem from ‘current spread’. When electrodes generate an electrical pulse to stimulate the auditory nerve it spreads to stimulate the cells nearby. This results in a distorted signal being sent to the brain.

A fundamental change to the way bionic devices interact with nerves is required to overcome this limitation.

Combining light and electricity

Using light as an alternative to electrical stimulation has the potential to increase precision, as light can be easily directed. However, nerve cells in the inner ear don’t respond naturally to light.

To solve this issue, our researchers are using gene therapy to introduce light sensitive molecules into nerves to make them responsive to light.

The team has established that by combining light and electricity, genetically modified nerves in the ear could be stimulated with high precision, while retaining the efficiency of electrical stimulation.

Selectivity can also be improved, as only nerves that are genetically modified can respond to the light.

Next steps for Bionics Institute researchers

The next steps will be to continue development of a hybrid device containing light emitters and electrodes in an alternating configuration implanted with once-off gene therapy to modify the nerves with a light-sensitive ion channel.

Our researchers are also investigating how this technology can improve other medical devices where the key shortcoming is the excessive spread of electrical current away from the target nerves, or lack of selectivity leading to unwanted side-effects.

It has the potential to be applied to hearing and vision restoration, as well as deep brain stimulation and modulation of the peripheral nervous system.

The research team

Bionics Institute researchers:

Associate Professor Rachael Richardson, Professor James Fallon, Associate Professor Andrew Wise, Dr Sophie Payne, Dr Alex Thompson, Dr Niliksha Gunewardene, Elise Ajay and Ajmal Azees.

External researchers:

Professor Paul Stoddart, Professor Michael Ibbotson, Professor Stephen O’Leary, Professor David Grayden, Professor David Garrett, Dr Patrick Ruther, Dr Anita Quigley, Dr Wei Tong, Dr Emma Brunton and James Begeng.

More information for researchers

Optical stimulation is a promising solution to the issue of spatially precise neural activation as light can provide highly confined stimulation and is not limited by conductive spread, as is electrical current. But, while optical stimulation offers the potential for selective and spatially precise neural activation, electrical stimulation remains the most efficient way to activate neural activity.

Our novel solution is to combine optical and electrical stimuli (termed hybrid stimulation) to overcome fundamental issues of neuromodulation by exploiting the spatial precision of optical stimulation while retaining the efficiency of electrical stimulation.

We were the first in the world to test this in the cochlear model. Light was used to precondition the opsin-modified neural tissue and electrical stimulation was used to stimulate, with rapid pulses and high precision.

Hybrid stimulation reduces the electrical power required for neural activation because the tissue is optically primed to reside near the stimulation threshold.

This enables the development of optical devices with integrated electrodes that are smaller and with more channels than traditional electrical devices.

We are exploring this concept in the cochlea, retina, brain and peripheral nervous systems.

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