October 17, 2007, Bothell, WA--Aculight Corporation has been awarded a new contract under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to develop an optical cochlear implant (OCI). The $750,000 Phase II award from the National Institutes of Health is funding a joint effort with Northwestern University (Evanston, IL).
"We're laying the foundation for a laser-based cochlear implant that provides users with dramatically improved fidelity over current electrical implants," said Mark Bendett, Aculight's director of medical products. "This Phase II will enable Aculight to produce an OCI that can be used in research studies at Northwestern University prior to developing a model for clinical applications."
A cochlear implant is a neural prosthetic device; an artificial extension of the body that restores lost nervous system function. Current implants work by stimulating the auditory nerve with a string of electrodes placed in the inner ear. But the devices have limitations. Electrical signals spread due to the body's wet, salty composition. This makes stimulating specific nerve populations inside the cochlea challenging. And concurrent electrical pulses in different locations merge with one another, mistakenly stimulating the entire cochlea. While there are techniques to work around the problems, the result is still an imperfect simulation of normal hearing.
Future optically-based cochlear implants could stimulate nerve fibers with unmatched accuracy because optical pulses in different places on the nerve wouldn't interfere with each other. As a result, users could experience a level of hearing unachievable with current technology; one that would allow them to listen to the subtle tones and nuances in music or distinguish a single voice in a noisy room.
"Dr. Claus Richter at Northwestern is a pioneer in optical cochlear stimulation. We know from his research that optical neural stimulation resembles auditory stimulation more closely than electrical does," said Bendett. "This will enable us to better reproduce natural sound in our OCI product. And because an OCI can complement residual hearing, implants wouldn't need to be restricted to the profoundly deaf like they are today. There would be a much larger pool of people that we could help."
Aculight's OCI is a key element in the company's rapidly growing medical platform, which includes Capella™ R-1850, the first infrared neural stimulator. Aculight will feature its neural stimulation technology at Neuroscience 2007 in San Diego, CA, November 3-7.