Hear…With Your Tongue?

Graduate Student J.J. Adrian Moritz, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences Leslie Stone-Roy and Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering John Williams demonstrate equipment used to map sensitivity in the human tongue. January 7, 2015Mechanical engineering Associate Professor John Williams is on the verge of a major medical breakthrough that over the last few months has captured a frenzy of media attention from all over the country. Professor Williams and his team are working on a revolutionary device to assist the hearing impaired, allowing sound to be processed through the tongue, instead of the ear.

Typically, the hearing impaired would use a hearing aid to amplify sound or a surgically implanted cochlear implant to stimulate the auditory nerve. Depending on the severity of the case, this new device would eliminate surgery, be significantly less expensive, and be just as effective in aiding those who have hearing loss.

“Cochlear implants can be upwards of $40,000, and including training can be even more expensive,” Professor Williams said. “What we’re shooting for is something in the few thousands of dollars that could work as good or even better.” Other drawbacks to having cochlear implants is the inherently risky procedure, the additional damage they can cause to the inner ear, and candidates must have most of their auditory system intact for the implants to do their job.

So, how does the new device work? Users push their tongues against a retainer-like mouthpiece packed with tiny electrodes to feel a pattern of Bluetooth-enabled, electric vibrations. The brain can be trained to translate these vibrations into words, just as a cochlear implant would work with the auditory nerve.

“We’re taking and substituting touch on the tongue with signals that the brain could use and substitute for hearing,” Professor Williams said.

The tongue is a fascinating organ, containing thousands of taste buds that connect to nerves running into the brain. This area of the brain is capable of decoding complex information, and this is what led him to his new research project.

So, how did Professor Williams come up with the idea for this brilliant device? After spending most of his career designing systems for space travel for NASA, he found a new concentration after his obstacles in space travel were overcome. Neuroscience and sensory substitution sparked his interest, especially after he himself developed tinnitus – a constant ringing in the ear.

After a year of designing and testing this device, Professor Williams and CSU graduate student, JJ Moritz, realized its promising potential and filed for a provisional patent and also launched Sapien LLC, to bring the technology to new heights.

They have partnered with Assistant Professor Leslie Stone-Roy of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, to dive deeper into how an adult brain would adapt to this unique type of technology.

“We have a remarkable amount of plasticity in our brain, even as adults,” Professor Stony-Roy said. “We now know that it is able to make changes and adapt to changes in incoming information, especially stimuli that are of importance to the individual.”

Together, they have launched a study to determine where the device would need to be placed on the tongue to maximize its effectiveness. “Basically, we are mapping the nerves on the tongue,” Professor Stone-Roy said. “There isn’t a lot of information out there about the nerves on the tongue and their ability to sense electrical impulses.”

Understanding how the tongue receives these messages, will not only enhance the device but determine whether standardized or customized mouthpieces are needed, which will in turn help determine cost of the device.

Professor Williams notes that it could take up to two years before the device is available for public use.