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Laser hearing aid
By Jinny Throup
Those with serious hearing problems may benefit from a new implantable device which uses pulses of laser light to stimulate the auditory nerves. Its developers say that it is a vast improvement over traditional cochlear implants. The science behind this invention builds on the recent discovery of the “optoacoustic effect” which proves that cells can be stimulated by pulses of infrared light. A research team in Germany was able to use laser pulses to rapidly heat water molecules in the inner ear. This caused mini shockwaves that vibrated the tiny hairs (cilia) in the ears. This process of vibrating the cilia is the same thing that sound waves do to create our normal sense of hearing.
The research was coordinated by the Swiss Centre for Electronics and Microtechnology, and their aim is to use this refinement of the optoacoustic effect to develop a new generation of cochlear implants. However, rather than replacing existing implants, it is likely that the two technologies will be combined to give patients a system with greater flexibility that can adapt to their needs.