Health & Wellbeing

Mouthpiece could let the deaf "hear" through their tongues

Mouthpiece could let the deaf ...
CSU researchers Dr. John Williams (left), Dr. Leslie Stone-Roy, and graduate student JJ Moritz
CSU researchers Dr. John Williams (left), Dr. Leslie Stone-Roy, and graduate student JJ Moritz
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CSU researchers Dr. John Williams (left), Dr. Leslie Stone-Roy, and graduate student JJ Moritz
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CSU researchers Dr. John Williams (left), Dr. Leslie Stone-Roy, and graduate student JJ Moritz
Williams and his team are still in the process of mapping out the nerves in the tongue, to determine which parts of the organ would be most receptive to stimulation
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Williams and his team are still in the process of mapping out the nerves in the tongue, to determine which parts of the organ would be most receptive to stimulation

In order to regain their sense of hearing, many deaf people currently opt for cochlear implants. Such devices are expensive, however, plus they must be surgically installed and they don't work on all forms of hearing loss. That's why a group of researchers at Colorado State University (CSU) are developing an alternative – an electric retainer that transmits spoken words to the user by buzzing their tongue.

Cochlear implants start by utilizing one or more external microphones (located adjacent to the ear) to receive sounds. That audio is filtered through a speech processor, which picks out the sounds that are actually human speech. Those speech sounds are then converted into electrical impulses, which are transmitted through the user's skin to a series of electrodes implanted in the cochlea. Those electrodes in turn directly stimulate the user's auditory nerve, delivering sound information to the brain.

Being developed by a team led by Prof. John Williams, the CSU retainer works in a similar fashion, in that it also uses a microphone-equipped earpiece to pick up sounds which are then converted into electrical signals. In its case, however, those signals are then sent by Bluetooth to the retainer, which the user holds in their mouth. When they press their tongue up against the device, a series of electrodes in it respond to the received signals by selectively stimulating nerves in different parts of the tongue.

Williams and his team are still in the process of mapping out the nerves in the tongue, to determine which parts of the organ would be most receptive to stimulation
Williams and his team are still in the process of mapping out the nerves in the tongue, to determine which parts of the organ would be most receptive to stimulation

After a period of training, it is believed that users could learn to associate specific patterns of "tongue tingles" with given words. According to the university, "The tongue contains thousands of nerves and the region of the brain that interprets touch sensations from the tongue is capable of decoding complicated information." The scientists compare the system to Braille, in which blind people mentally convert bumps felt with their fingertips into written letters and words.

Unlike the case with cochlear implants, no surgery would be necessary in order to use the system. It should additionally be much less costly, plus it wouldn't require users to still have a functional auditory nerve.

More work still needs to be done before the device can see widespread use, however. For one thing, Williams and his team are still in the process of mapping out the nerves in the tongue, to determine which parts of the organ would be most receptive to stimulation.

Source: Colorado State University via Popular Science

3 comments
TravisGM
Seems like a cool idea... but the issue here is many hearing people don't realize that A LOT of Deaf people don't want to be 'fixed'. Being deaf is much more than it used to be... Back in the day, being deaf meant not being able to hear, not being able to work, not being able to learn, not not not. It's not about that anymore; not being able. Deaf people can do anything that hearing people can except hear. And honestly, being able to hear isn't that great of a thing. I know hundreds of Deaf people who love being Deaf. The advent of technology like this and the cochlear implant are cool ideas, but still reek of a barbaric thinking system, which is; deaf people need to be fixed. Now you may argue that there are some deaf people who want to be able to hear. And I'd say, let them hear! Let them choose for themselves. But first, let them learn what it means to be happy with who they are. As me and my friends say 'without a cochlear implant, you are stone deaf'. The same goes true with this. Beneath all the technology and cultural impositions, we are who we are. If we are constantly concerned with how we can change our physical appearance or abilities, we'll never know the message life intends to teach us.
christopher
Silly. You need your tongue to talk with, which you can't do if it's inserted into some contraption, plus the ability to hear yourself talking is important (and lost with this gadget as well).
Misti Pickles
Travis and Christopher both miss an important point. Sure deaf people have a strong culture and are far less isolated than they once were. But the VAST MAJORITY of this world communicates through speech. Advocating ignoring the rest of the world is silly, just to maintain some kind of cultural pride. It would be akin to me moving to China and relying on sign for all of my instruction and direction. It compromises understanding and safety not to incorporate every tool available. No one is advocating giving up deaf culture--everyone in my family signs--but dammit, not giving another form of communication to the deaf is akin to not letting the blind see! Even black and white vision is better than all dark!