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Sci-Friday: Fairbanks Audiologist explains the inner workings of cochlear implants

Published: Jun. 11, 2021 at 4:51 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - The human body is a collection of organic machines, and every year medical research is improving our ability to substitute parts of that machinery if it breaks down. One example of this family of technology is the cochlear implant, which can be used to emulate the function of a human’s inner ear.

Mariana McIlwain, Doctor of Audiology at the Fairbanks Hearing and Balance Center provided a walkthrough of how the technology works, saying, “A cochlear implant is completely different than a hearing aid. It is actually a surgically implantable device, so it has two major components.”

The outside component is a sound processor that contains microphones, electronics, a battery, and a coil that transmits signals to the second component.

This component attaches to the outside of the head, and contains a microphone, battery, and...
This component attaches to the outside of the head, and contains a microphone, battery, and magnetic coil used to transmit data.(Ryan Osborne)

McIlwain continued, “How it works is pretty amazing. Sound, which is an acoustic input, will be picked up by the microphone. The acoustic input is converted into a digital input that is then transferred to the magnet that will be located below your skull where the surgery is done.”

The actual implant, has a magnetic coil to receive signals, and an array of very small electrodes which are placed into the cochlea in the inner ear. These signals then stimulate the cochlear nerve, the mechanism responsible for carrying auditory sensory information to the brain.

“So basically we are replacing what your organ of hearing does with this, and it’s really up to your brain to eventually learn and modify, and know what these new sounds are,” McIlwain said.

A person given a cochlear implant who receives intensive auditory training may learn to interpret these signals as sound and discernable speech.

“People might have the misconception because of movies that you’ll get an implant like this and suddenly you can hear 5 minutes after, but in reality it takes a lot of work and time for your brain to get used to these sounds,” McIlwain explained.

As technology marches forward and the human body is better understood, the future may contain many such devices, and even improvements to our natural machinery.

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