Device Allows the Deaf to Hear Through Their Tongues

While the tongue is vital in forming words to make sound, it could soon be used to hear as well.
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While the tongue is vital in forming words to make sound, it could soon be used to hear as well.

Anyone who has burned their tongue knows just how sensitive this part of your mouth can be. But that hyper-responsiveness means the tongue has some pretty impressive capabilities. We might soon be able to add hearing alongside taste and talk to the list of amazing things the tongue can do. 

Still in its earliest phases of development, researchers at Colorado State University have created a prototype of a mouthpiece that allows those with hearing loss to recognize words through tongue stimulation.  

hearing device

Dr. John Williams, left, a professor of mechanical engineering, Dr. Leslie Stone-Roy, a professor of neuroscience, and JJ Moritz, a graduate student, are developing a device to hear with your tongue. (Photo courtesy of Colorado State University)

While a cochlear implant requires an invasive — and expensive — surgical procedure, hearing through the tongue can be achieved by way of Bluetooth technology and a retainer. An earpiece picks up words from a speaker and sends an electrical signal to the mouthpiece, translating sound into tongue stimulation. After a few months of training, the brain will begin to automatically interpret the different vibrations as words.

So no, this insert doesn’t suddenly make ears capable of hearing, but instead teaches the tongue to do the hearing itself.

Cochlear implants work in a similar way, but electrically stimulate the auditory nerve instead of the tongue. Implants can cost between $40,000 and $100,000, and require that the patient have a functional auditory nerve. Not only does the mouthpiece open up hearing options to those ineligible for a cochlear implant, the research team estimates it will cost as little as $2,000, Popular Science reports

The catch: Similar to cochlear implants, the retainer still works best for those that are not completely deaf as it strengthens remaining hearing capabilities. 

Learn more about Colorado State University’s hearing device in the video below:

Top photo courtesy of Colorado State University