New Hearing Aids Double As Headphones, Reduce Grandpa to a Living, Breathing iPod Accessory (UPDATED)

In their steady march toward decrepitude, tech-savvy boomers will confront some weighty questions. Good news!

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In their steady march toward decrepitude, tech-savvy boomers will confront some weighty questions: How will we pay for Social Security? What’s up with rap music? Why can’t I connect my BlackBerry to my hearing aid? Well, good news!

Stacked with the same bone conduction technology we’ve been seeing in Bluetooth headsets for some time now, along with wired and wireless device connectivity, a new class of hearing aids in making its way into patients’ ears—or more accurately, their skulls. Bone conduction makes a big difference to hearing aids’ core functionality, eliminating all manner of noise issues, but the heart of these new plugs is a powerful processing platform, with a gadgety twist:

[T]he newer processors, costing about $6000 (AUD) each, shut out background noise, giving users up to 25 per cent better hearing, and can be attached directly to MP3 music players or wireless headsets for talking on the phone

This makes a lot of sense—wearing earbuds or a Bluetooth headset on top of hearing aids would feel a little redundant, no? Anyway, as they are, the systems, made by Australian company Cochlear, aren’t as cyborgian as you might imagine. The processor, with its headphone jack and wireless radio, isn’t actually drilled into your head—that’s just the cochlear implant—but instead worn around your ear, headset-style. The company’s even got a range of “Freedom Accessories” which, let’s be clear here, are consumer tech accessories meant to indirectly plug into your bone. It’s a great time to be an old.


UPDATE: It looks like we got a few things wrong first time around. Here’s an in-depth explanation of how this tech works:

What your recent article refers to is the Bone-Anchored Hearing Aid or BAHA. This device has been around for at least the last 4 years and is not a fully implantable device nor is it a cochlear implant. The BAHA is designed for people who are unable to wear conventional hearing aids because of chronic ear infections that prevent occlusion of the ear canal, or because they have congenital skull abnormalities including failure of the middle ear and/or ear canal to form.

The BAHA consists of a titanium screw and abutment which is implanted into the skull. Titanium is capable of osseointegration, which basically means that the screw is integrated into the bone when it heals, while the skin grows around the abutment. After the healing process is complete, an external processor is then clipped to the abutment. An external processor allows for regular maintainance, and easy removal and adjustment and battery replacement.

The BAHA processor is amplifies the incoming sound waves and vibrates the skull. These vibrations stimulate surviving hair cells within the inner ear which in turn convert sound into signals that the brain can interpret. They work just like a conventional hearing aid, except vibrations are transferred via the skull, rather than being captured by the eardrum and amplified by the middle ear bones before passing to the inner ear.

A cochlear implant (the picture in your post is of the Nucleus Freedom speech processor which is the external portion of a cochlear implant system) on the other hand converts sound into an electrical signal which is passed across the skin to a receiver-stimulator which provides electrical current to an electrode array implanted into the inner ear, to directly stimulate auditory neurons, providing a perception of sound. Cochlear implants are only recommended when the level of sensory hair cell damage is so severe that even with hearing aids, speech perception cannot be supported.

Cochlear is a manufacturer of both the BAHA and the nucleus implant. That cochlear is touting the ‘noise-cancellation abilities’ of their new device is more a reflection of the fact that advanced signal processing is now possible with the updated processor, unlike their first generation device. On the other hand, noise cancellation technologies are touted as being the greatest thing since sliced bread by every hearing aid manufacturer, yet no peer-reviewed studies have shown any more than minor improvements in speech understanding with noise cancellation technologies, and these improvements have been limited to very specific listening laboratory testing situations that tend not to generalize well to everyday life.

If you want to find out more, check out Wikipedia. They have pictures to help explain things better.


—Thanks, Chris! [Sydney Morning Herald via Neatorama via BoingBoing]

More on hearing aids from G/O Media’s partner. Gizmodo is not involved in creating these articles but may receive a commission from purchases through its content:
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