The What and How of Laser-Based Hearing Aids

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Millions of American adults report some form of hearing loss, and that number is only expected to grow as a large segment of our population ages. Of those millions of Americans, only a small percentage ever choose to use hearing aids to help them hear better, but that could change with some of the latest hearing aid technology now on the market, laser-based hearing aids.

With the rise of digital hearing aids starting in the 1990’s, a revolutionary change after decades of analog hearing aids, those with hearing impairment saw a vast increase in options that provided clearer and more complete sound along with an array of features. Hearing aids now have wireless capabilities, Bluetooth connectivity, tinnitus maskers and more! They can be worn in the ear or behind the ear and are often so small as to be nearly undetectable to outside eyes.

The newest generation of laser-based hearing aids recently approved for sale by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) promises to deliver even more capability for those with hearing loss.

While in some ways similar to traditional hearing aids, the biggest difference is that laser-based hearing aids transmit sound via light instead of through air conduction. The laser-based hearing aid, EarLens CHD, consists of a tympanic membrane transducer (TMT) and a behind-the-ear (BTE) audio processor. Sound waves are received by the BTE processor and converted to electronic signals that are amplified similar to a traditional digital hearing aid and then sent to a connected ear tip that sits in the ear canal. From here, the signals are converted to pulses of light that are then sent to a photodetector on the TMT. The TMT converts the light back into electronic signals and transmits the sound vibrations to the eardrum on which it sits.

According to the information released by the FDA and the company manufacturing these laser-based hearing aids, the devices help users to hear a wider range of frequencies making it easier to hear and understand, especially in noisy environments. During several assessments conducted over a 4-month period, reviewers found that after 30 days of device use, the 48 subjects experienced, on average:

  • 33% improvement in word recognition.
  • A clinically significant functional gain of 30.5 dB on average in the high-frequency range (2,000-10,000 Hz) with an average of 30-40 dB of functional gain noted at 6,000 Hz and above and a maximum of 68 dB at 9,000-10,000 Hz, which is not typically achieved with conventional air-conduction hearing aids.

It is believed that the laser-based hearing aid has the “potential to substantially reduce or eliminate feedback and… may also be able to provide a wide range of gain in addition to an ultra-wide frequency range.”

This isn’t the first time lasers have been used to treat hearing loss, but this next generation of hearing aids may bring a rich new world of communication to those with hearing loss. Could the richer experience promised by laser-based hearing aids entice more affected by hearing loss to start using hearing aids and improving their total health along with communication? Time will tell.

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