Healthcare Technology Featured Article

November 12, 2012

Self-Powering Cochlear Implants Extract Electrical Signals from Inner Ear

Since the fifties, cochlear implants have been helping people with severe hearing impairments. But while there have been significant advances in technology, the chips used for these implants still run on external batteries.

External batteries are a burden for most of the users, and efforts are underway to eliminate them.

A team of surgeons, neuroscientists and electrical engineers at MIT have addressed this problem, developing a cochlea chip that extracts electrical signals from the inner ear to power itself, reports online technology publication, Ars Technica.

As per this report, the MIT’s cochlea chip is the latest in a series of inventions aimed at creating entirely self-sufficient, self-powered implants. The aim is to eliminate the need for external power.  

MIT hopes to solve the battery problem for ear implants by exploiting the natural battery that lies dormant within the ear.

In a statement, Konstantina Stankovic, an otologic surgeon at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, said, "In the past, people have thought that the space where the high potential in the ear is located is inaccessible for implantable devices, because potentially it's very dangerous if you encroach on it."

"We have known for 60 years that this battery exists and that it's really important for normal hearing, but nobody has attempted to use this battery to power useful electronics,” she added.

According to the researchers, the negatively-charged potassium ions and positively-charged sodium ions, active on either side of a membrane inside the ear chamber, help convert the mechanical force of eardrum vibrations into electrochemical signals transmitted to the brain. The tiny electronic chip developed for the application was integrated with low resistance electrodes and a low-power radio transmitter, wrote Wired writer Liat Clark.

Presently, the power produced using the technology is very low, but the potential is great. So the researchers continue to improve the extracted electrical charge.

Meanwhile, the MIT team tested the implant on guinea pigs as their inner ears operate very much like humans, allowing electrodes to be attached to both sides of the cell membrane.

The MIT team hopes to make such chips even smaller and less invasive. The study was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Edited by Braden Becker

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