Holy Cow, Can You Hear Me Now?

[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.

[Photo: Princeton University, Frank Wojciechowski]
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