US scientists have developed an electronic mouthpiece that could allow deaf people to “hear” through their tongues.
The device, which converts sounds into vibration patterns, should be less expensive and suitable for a wider range of patients that a bionic ear.
A bionic ear, or cochlear implant, requires surgery and is not a viable option for anyone whose auditory nerve is not functioning, meaning that the mouthpiece is a less invasive solution. By using the mouthpiece over a number of weeks and months, users can begin to relate patterns of vibrations to words, effectively teaching their tongue to hear.
“It’s much simpler than undergoing surgery and we think it will be a lot less expensive than cochlear implants,” John Williams, a mechanical engineer from Colorado State University, told Science Alert. “Cochlear implants are very effective and have transformed many lives, but not everyone is a candidate. We think our device will be just as effective but will work for many more people and cost less.”
Williams, who spent most of his career working on electric propulsion engines, was inspired to create the device after developing tinnitus from years of working around high power vacuums.
At the moment, the device is only at the prototype stage, with neuroscientists still needing to map out the tongue’s complex network of more than a thousand nerves in order to construct the best combination of electrodes on the mouthpiece. The researchers will also need to monitor responses from a selection of test users to determine if the final product can be used universally or if it needs to be tailored to individuals.
Although the concept of hearing with your tongue may sound far-fetched at first, Williams describes the process as just like Braille and sign language – both of which are existing forms of sensory substitution.