The tongue might soon be a new set of ears for those with hearing loss.
Colorado State University researchers are developing a budget-friendly smart retainer that stimulates the sensitive nerves of the tongue, teaching the brain to “hear” certain vibration patterns as words.
When the new technology is complete, it could cost as little as $2,000 – a far cry from the $100,000 surgically-implanted cochlear implant that’s popular today.
The process begins with a Bluetooth-enabled earpiece, which records incoming sounds before sending them to a transmitter, where they become distinctive electronic waveforms.
Information is then transferred to the retainer, which uses electrodes to transmit tiny, touch-based sensations that the team reports feels much like Pop Rocks or carbonated bubbles.
To receive the incoming messages, the user presses his or her tongue against the mouthpiece.
Through several months of in-depth training, the user will come to understand each pattern as a different word.
Once the brain makes the connection between the feeling and the word, a whole new range of understanding is possible.
Project leader John Williams, a Department of Mechanical Engineering associate professor, hopes the retainer, currently just a bulky prototype, will prevent needless surgery while helping scientists gain a better understanding of electrode technology.
Leslie Stone-Roy, a team member and neuroscientist specializing in tongue receptors, told PopScience,
We’re able to discriminate between fine points that are just a short distance on the tongue…
[The tongue is] similar in terms of your fingertips; that’s why we use fingers to read Braille.
The team’s prototype isn’t compact or chic just yet.
But, they’re inventing a whole new way of understanding.