April 6, 2017 |

Friday Think: When it comes to hearing aids, scientists are listening

The next generation in hearing aid technology may include human ears that can repair themselves.
Man in a red, white, and blue shirt leaning out of a window, with a cellular telephone held to his ear.
Photo: PATH/Eric Becker.

Guess what? That ringing in your ears doesn’t mean people are talking about you. It’s likely a sign of impending hearing loss. As a human experience, hearing loss is nothing new, and it’s certainly not going away. The newest innovations in hearing aid technologies are serving a wider range of people now, from surgically placed cochlear implants for infants to new technologies that address hearing loss and tinnitus in adults.  There are even Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids that can swap the ringing in your ears for streaming music, TV shows, audio books, and other media.

In “High-Tech Hope for the Hard of Hearing,” writer David Owen introduces us to these emerging technologies, including one lab staffed with scientists earnestly working to find out if human ears could eventually repair themselves. Here’s an excerpt from The New Yorker:

Unlike taste buds and olfactory receptors, which the body replenishes continuously, the most delicate elements of the human auditory system don’t regenerate. The National Center for Health Statistics has estimated that thirty-seven million American adults have lost some hearing, and, according to the National Academy of Sciences, hearing loss is, worldwide, the “fifth leading cause of years lived with disability.” Hearing problems can lead to social isolation and cognitive decline, both of which make getting older—itself a cause of hearing loss—seem worse than it does already.

David also shares his own experience being tested and fitted for hearing aids, which he says improved his hearing but also resulted in the sound of his voice annoying him. He also says he became more aware of the “surprisingly varied noises made by my pants.”

He considers how perceptions toward hearing aids might change for a population already accustomed to wearing headphones and visible earbuds. Will they even care if people see the devices?

Attitudes about visibility may be changing . . . now that people of all ages walk around with electronic gadgets sticking out of their ears. Hearing-aid companies increasingly compete with manufacturers of over-the-counter devices known as “personal sound-amplification products (psaps).” The cheapest psaps, some of which sell for less than fifty dollars, are notoriously junky and may even exacerbate hearing loss by indiscriminately amplifying harmful sounds. But some companies make user-adjustable Bluetooth devices that have received favorable reviews from technology critics and people with mild hearing problems.

To read the entire article online, please visit here.Friday Think is an occasional series on PATH blog.

During the week we scour the news for the hottest stories on innovation. Our feature, Friday Think, highlights one we’ve found particularly fascinating.

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  • Portrait of Tracy Romoser. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.
    Tracy Romoser was formerly a communications officer and the blog editor at PATH.