Holy Cow, Can You Hear Me Now?

boys

[Illustration by Staff Illustrator]

On the first day of a new school year, I notice a boy around my age with a beige hearing aid positioned by his ear. He explains that he was born with severe hearing loss, and he’s needed a hearing aid ever since he was a baby. His hearing aid amplifies the sounds around him, but it’s still hard for him to differentiate background noises from immediate sounds (“Hearing Aids: Benefits and Safety,” 2014). He also explains how it’s a hassle to adjust the volume control and change the aid’s batteries since both are small (“Advantages Disadvantages of In-the-ear,” 1996). As we talk, my mind turns to my grandfather, who must constantly adjust his hearing aid and needs me to shout when we speak on the phone.

Hearing loss has many causes including genetic disorders, extended exposure to dangerously loud sounds and normal aging. Hearing aids can’t repair the damage regardless of the cause. Taking a different approach that uses biology and technology, researchers at Princeton are developing a bionic ear that contains biological and electronic materials, including bovine or cow cells, silicone, and silver nanoparticles. The structure of cartilage cells from cows is similar to that of human cells, and bovine cells are much easier to obtain (Stromberg, 2013).

[“Anatomy of the Human Ear” by Chittka L, Brockmann A, (Unedited). License: CC BY 2.5]

Using CAD software and a 3D printer, the scientists construct a virtual representation of the ear and use cow cells, silicone, and nanoparticles as ‘ink’ to print the ear (Chemical & Engineering News, 2013).
The overall shape of the bionic ear is very close to that of a human ear, but it’s different on the inside. The bionic ear has a ‘coil receiver’ that senses electromagnetic frequencies. This receiver is connected to a spring-like structure resembling a cochlea. Wires wound around the cochlea connect to electrodes, and the electrical signals can be directly placed on a person’s auditory nerve (Sullivan, 2013). The bionic ear can detect electromagnetic frequencies humans can normally sense as well as frequencies even beyond what we’re capable of hearing.

I never would have imagined how biology and technology are so interconnected, but that’s the beauty of the bionic ear. These researchers have proven that combining cells and soft tissue with hard electronics is possible.

bionicEar

[Photo: Princeton University, Frank Wojciechowski]

In Brief:

  • The bionic ear is composed of cartilage cells from cows, silicone, and silver nanoparticles.
  • Created using 3D printing, the bionic ear resembles a human ear but incorporates additional structures that allow it to “hear.”
  • While the creation of the bionic ear was meant to prove that electronics could easily be interconnected with biological material, the ear could serve as a future prosthetic for enhancing hearing.

Works Cited

This article was written by cYw11. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cYw Editorial Staff

cYw11

Author: cYw11

Hi and thanks for checking out our cYw blog! I’m student blogger who loves writing about current and most-discussed scientific topics. I enjoyed researching about the bionic ear and its applications in hearing impairments and crafting a story based on my findings. My past article was on the connection between camels and Alzheimer's Disease. Contributing to a blog where other students share their scientific ideas and research has been an exciting experience. Besides writing about science, in my free time, you might often find me writing poetry, playing the flute or piano, reading YA novels, and volunteering at summer camps for younger kids.  

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6 Comments

  1. I wanted to express my sincere appreciation for this detailed explanation on the advances in hearing loss technology and the role that cows are playing into advancing our understandings, Many of my relatives suffer from this condition. The imagery embedded in your research story really allowed for me as a reader to visualize what was being described. I wanted to share with you a publication in this field by Cornell University that is a great connection: http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2013/02/bioengineers-physicians-3-d-print-ears-look-act-real
    Have you as the author been in contact with Lawrence Bonassar, from Cornell?

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  2. Thank you! I do remember reading that article, but focused more on the bionic ear designed in Princeton. I will definitely try to contact the researcher.

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    • Hi Maybelle, and thanks for reading this post! The bionic ear isn’t a commercial product yet- in other words, it can’t replace a human ear as of now. It is an experimental protoype constructed by the Princeton researchers to see how well electronics could be incorporated with ear tissue cells and whether the ear could actually detect various sounds. Hopefully, more advances in cyberkinetics and biomedical engineering with regards to hearing loss will allow for a bionic ear that is functional and safe for humans to use!

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  3. Thank you so much for writing this article! It is so interesting that cow cells out of all animals can be used to improve the hearing function of humans. Having a cousin who wears hearing aids and cannot hear properly, I am really hopeful about the future of this technology. I love how this technology combines biology and engineering: a true interdisciplinary approach to helping those with hearing disorders. Your article really captured my attention, so I researched a bit online and found this: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140423143011.htm which might interest you. Here, researchers in Australia are experimenting with gene therapy in addition to transplants. This has far broader implications than just helping with hearing disorders (for example: Parkinson’s Disease).

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    • Thank you for reading this post and sharing the science article with me, Yashaar! My grandfather has severe hearing loss and even with his hearing aids, it’s extremely difficult for him to hear us 🙁 . Using electrical pulses for gene therapy is an interesting solution to Parkinson’s Disease and depression in addition to serving as a supplement to cochlear implants. I remember reading an article on Scientific American about deep-brain stimulation to relieve mood disorders : http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/an-electrode-in-the-brain-turns-off-depression/.

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