Enhanced Hearing Thanks to Robotically Implanted Devices
Who needs cochlear implants and what do they do?
Cochlear implants are electronic devices that have been around since the mid 1980’s and which emulate the sense of sound to acutely or nearly deaf individuals. These innovative devices include an internal part, which is surgically implanted in the patient’s ear, and an external part, which attaches to the skull, behind the ear. A microphone, a speech processor, a transmitter, a receiver, and several electrodes work together to create a realistic representation of sound and speech for the implantée. Even though cochlear implants do not, in fact, restore normal hearing, they are effective in interpreting sound input and enabling communication between persons with hearing ability and those without.
Currently, only well-trained and highly experienced surgeons are able perform cochlear implant surgery on deaf patients. The risky procedure involves drilling through the skull bone, reaching the middle ear, and finally the inner ear (cochlea), where the electrodes are placed. The cochlea is where sound is translated into nerve impulses to the brain. Unfortunately, even when implantations are performed by experienced surgeons, it’s still possible for dust to enter the inner ear, causing further loss of hearing, infections, or balance issues.
The utility delivered by cochlear implants has been called life-changing by patients. Without the device, deaf people are often subject to the lifelong stigma of deafness (and often also muteness), ending up confined to the exclusive community of the unhearing. With cochlear ear implants, the deaf can participate in life more fully, alongside the hearing. Though the technology is controversial within the deaf community, the decision to receive the implants is personal and, in principle, should not depend on financial ability.
Use of robots in ear implantation
In 2017, a team of researchers at the University of Bern (Switzerland) announced they had developed a high-precision surgical robot capable of performing cochlear implantation independently, without direct visual control from the surgeon. The hand-held robotic drill utilizes highly sensitive sensors, which allow it to make a very precise puncture all the way to the cochlea without damaging it.
A ground-breaking discovery, the robotic tech reduces the procedure’s previous risk significantly, making implantation much safer for patients. The high-precision approach, not viable in surgeries performed by humans alone, opens the door to a new level of accessibility for the highly complex hearing aid.
Opportunities in hearing implantation
The robot-powered surgical alternative made possible by advances in health tech, makes the implantation of cochlear implants minimally invasive for patients. In time, economies of scale and technological improvements will hopefully make the coveted implants more affordable. Currently, the surgery can cost up to a hundred thousand euros or more and isn’t always covered by health insurance, making it inaccessible to many.
Previously, only doctors could adjust the sound settings of implantable devices using special hardware, requiring lengthy hospital visits and ample planning for patients. Today, with the help of smartphone apps, implantées can adjust their own sound processing settings across different environments, perfecting the input produced by cochlear implants.
Limitations of ear implants
The full effectiveness of cochlear implants depends on the patient’s age at implantation, the cause of hearing loss, and of course – the actual surgical procedure’s success. There are certain risks associated with every surgery, and in precision surgery the risks are even greater.
Another point worth considering before undergoing cochlear implantation, is the process of learning to interpret the sounds transmitted by the device. This takes the human brain time and practice, though having help from specialists can speed it up. Still, even though it is better for patients to be fitted with the implants at a younger age (implantation can be done as early as one year of age), adults can also benefit from having them fitted – requiring fewer visual communication cues over time.
Going forward, with the help of the robotic ear drill the success rate of cochlear device implantation should improve considerably, and so will its acceptance among previously wary candidates.