I was very surprised at Celebration 2015 when I sat in on a session entitled "The Future Sounds Better Than Ever". I was expecting to hear of advances in technology, which I did, that has to do with improving or restoring a persons hearing.
I heard of a totally implantable Cochlear implant (TIKI) under development and how the barrier they are having the most trouble with has to do with the implantable microphone and sound quality. They are working towards the day when you will not be able to tell if a person has an implant or not.
I heard of all the research relating to the benefits of having 2 implants, 1 in each ear, and the positive impact on a persons speech perception as well as hearing in noise and being able to tell where sounds are coming from.
I heard of the positive aspects having 2 implants has on a persons brain function.
|L-R Dr. Papsin, Jim Patrick, Chief Engineer at Cochlear, Dr. Kelsall, Dr. Lin|
I heard Dr. Frank Lin talk on the possible, and very likely, link between hearing loss and cognitive decline leading to a 2 to 5 times higher risk of developing dementia. The research is just beginning, but the link appears to be there, and also, the reversing of hearing loss on improving or preventing cognitive decline. It is becoming more and more clear that a part of healthy brain aging is the preservation of a persons hearing.
But what intrigued me the most was Dr. Blake Papsin and his talk on the development of an implantable device to restore the balance function.
He stated the he was consulting with Cochlear Limited on a device that would have the capability of sensing a persons body position and send an electronic signal to the semi-circular canals to adjust the persons posture as required.
This is significant! As a person who has no balance in one ear, the thought of losing it completely is a bit overwhelming. My ENT brought this forward as what possibly may happen with me. He told me I would be able to "function", but I would most likely be "unstable". I don't like the words "function" and "unstable" used in this fashion. I don't want to "function", I want to be productive.
Dr. Papsin showed a video of a child demonstrating the possibilities. The young boy was standing on a thick piece of foam cushion, similar to what you would use as a chair seat. Anyone who has gone through vestibular rehab therapy (VRT) knows how difficult that task can be, especially if you have a compromised balance system. The point of it is to remove your feet from being able to tell your brain how you are standing. If you can do it with your eyes open, just try it once with them shut!
The person giving the young lad the test needed to help keep the boy upright while he was standing on the foam. When they turned the device on, the boy did not move. No swaying, no wobbling, no tipping over, nothing! He was on the same piece of foam!
He also showed a video of a child riding a scooter in his driveway during the day and also one of a child ice skating. Neither of these children had ANY balance function from their ears. He used these to make a point. A person can adjust to the loss of balance by depending on their sight and muscles from the legs, but take either of those away and they have ZERO preventive response to prevent a fall.
I know this from experience. I have told people many times, if they want to see something funny, put me in a room with no natural light, close the door, and randomly kill the lights. I will be reaching and groping for anything I can to keep me from falling over.
What is the point of all of this? Just another intervention by modern medicine that isn't really needed?
Not at all. Considering that falls are the number one reason for injuries in people of all ages and especially in older people, the benefits should seem so obvious. Fewer trips to the ER, fewer broken bones, less time needed in facilities to rehab, a potentially longer and healthier life.
But even beyond that, he told of a statistic I was amazed to hear. His specialty is children with hearing loss. Research shows that 50% of all children with hearing loss also have no functioning balance system. They go hand in hand. He also stated that a child with a cochlear implant that has no balance function is 8.6 times more likely to have cochlear implant failure than one that has a functioning balance system. 8.6 TIMES! The reason is fairly easy to figure out. It is not the device's fault. It is the fact that children without balance fall more, and consequently, bonk their head more, leading to device failure.
These devices are not inexpensive. They are designed to last a lifetime. Who would want to have one replaced 8 times more than what should be expected?
There is other research going on with the same end goal in mind. Here are two links to vestibular implant research:
The internal device that Cochlear is working on would have 2 electrode arrays. 1 for the cochlea, to restore hearing, and 1 for the semi circular canals, to restore balance. The external processor would have a gyroscope built in to sense the position of the person and signal the vestibular system electronically to adjust, as well as all the currently and potentially available hearing benefits.
As someone who potentially could use this, I quickly signed my name on question card to be a test subject, if possible.
In the words of Dr. Papsin, "The future of implantable medical devices has to do with the vestibular system".
It may be a few years off before this is available, but the future certainly does look promising.
Just a guy trying to live with an invisible, potentially debilitating disease.