Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light | IEEE Spectrum

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

I have been an otolaryngologist for more than two decades. My patients tell me they want more natural sound, more enjoyment of music, and most of all, better comprehension of speech, particularly in settings with background noise—the so-called cocktail party problem. For 15 years, my team at the University of Göttingen, in Germany, has been collaborating with colleagues at the University of Freiburg and beyond to reinvent the cochlear implant in a strikingly counterintuitive way: using light.

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