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The future of hearing: Innovations in hearing health care

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Nikkhil K Masurkar, Executive Director, ENTOD Pharmaceuticals highlights the latest innovations in hearing healthcare sector

According to the World Health Organization, around 5 per cent of the world population suffers from disabling hearing loss with around one third of the people above 65 years of age affected by it. Disabled hearing loss is defined as hearing loss greater than 40 dB hearing levels (dB HL) in the better hearing ear in adults and greater than 30 dB HL in the better hearing ear in children. Ageing is by far the most common factor that leads to hearing loss. However, a number of other factors are also responsible for hearing loss in children and young adults. These include genetic disorders, certain kind of infectious diseases, chronic ear infections, toxicity from use of certain drugs and exposure to excessive noise.

Over the years, marked improvements have been witnessed in the field of hearing care including technological advances that have radically improved hearing aid devices, therapies to manage conditions such as tinnitus and hyperacusis as well as better assistive devices.

Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, hearing assistive technology has moved towards greater personalisation and customization of hearing aids. This helps devices to be programmed and customised as per the needs of different consumers, improving their experience and quality of life. More robust, convenient devices and advanced technology such as bone-anchored hearing aids and cochlear implants are today helping people with hearing impairment lead normal lives.

Here are a few innovations and latest technologies that are revolutionising hearing healthcare:

Innovations in hearing aids

  • Rechargeable hearing aids

Hearing aids with rechargeable batteries have been one of the most notable innovations making hearing technology more convenient and hassle free. While hearing aids with disposable batteries still remain more widely used, increasingly manufacturers are taking to produce more rechargeable hearing aids. With rechargeable hearing aid, people with hearing impairment particularly the elderly do not have to worry about battery life or the need for keeping spare batteries and having them fitted into the instruments.

  • Smartphone compatible hearing aids

Using a mobile phone is a challenging task for people with hearing impairment. Often, people with hearing aids struggled with background noise or poor sound reception when using mobile phones, making it almost impossible for them to have a conversation. Smartphone compatible hearing aids, a remarkable leap in technology, has overcome this challenge, making it easier for people with hearing loss to navigate their daily lives. The digital wireless technology which is being currently used in these hearing aids lets them connect to a lot of other devices too like an android TV, a simple radio with Bluetooth or even an MP3 player. Hearing aid companies are now manufacturing Bluetooth accessories that plug into a BTE hearing aid’s direct audio input. These accessories provide a wireless link between hearing aids and cell phones such that the cell phone audio is transmitted directly to the hearing aid for listening.

  • Artificial intelligence backed hearing aids

Incorporation of artificial intelligence backed tools is another major advancement in hearing aid technology in recent times. This technology allows hearing aids to access a deep neural network that helps in processing sound. Once the hearing aid is able to detect the environment, it will change its setting accordingly and will increase or decrease the volume accordingly.

  • App enabled devices

A lot of the applications that we see in our smartphone has today also made way into hearing aid devices. For example, an app helps people get directly in touch with their hearing care provider. Similarly, another app keeps a check on the battery life and other device related vitals. Some more apps available on hearing aids today can even convert speech into text, giving a remarkable leap to hearing technology.

  • Advances on drugs to treat and prevent hearing loss

While a large part of the current hearing care is based on the use of hearing aids and devices, medical researchers in many parts of the world are now also focusing their energies on finding drugs and therapies that can help people prevent or reverse hearing impairment. It is important to note that a significant number of people fail to find much relief even with use of hearing aids and are left in the lurch in the absence of alternative therapies. Drugs to prevent noise-induced hearing loss to gene therapy for regenerating the hair cells in the inner ear, a series of advanced treatment options are now on the anvil.

Recent research has demonstrated that using compounds called gamma-secretase inhibitors (GSIs) can help start a mechanism to regenerate sensory hair cells in the inner ear. Similarly, an American biotechnology company is conducting clinical trials to ascertain the efficacy of an injectable treatment that can prevent hearing loss induced by chemotherapy drug cisplatin in cancer patients. Another study conducted by scientists at the Southern Illinois University (SIU) School of Medicine has found that administration of d-methionine compound within a 48 hours before or after exposure can help prevent noise-induced hearing loss. Similarly, studies conducted at US-based Creighton University of Medicine found that dabrafenib, a drug used in cancer treatment, can be re-purposed to prevent noise induced hearing loss.

While most of these treatment options are still in trial stages, they offer immense hope of a better future for reducing the burden of hearing disability by preventing and restoring hearing loss.

  • Bone-anchored hearing aids

Bone-anchored hearing aids or BAHAs are another new age advancement in hearing care that offer hearing solution for people with conductive or mixed hearing loss who cannot benefit fully from conventional hearing aids. BAHAs come with permanent titanium fixture, which is surgically placed into the skull bone located behind the ear. Along with this, there is a detachable sound process that clips onto the fixture. Sound is transmitted to the cochlea via bone conduction.

  • New advancements in cochlear implant technology

Cochlear implants have been around for several decades now. However, advancements in the field of microelectronics and signal processing technology have enabled further improvement in overall CI technology. While cochlear implants have till now focused on offering hearing ability to people with deafness, new advancements in the field are focusing on manufacturing slimmest electrodes that are designed to be completely atraumatic so as to preserve the delicate natural cochlear structures. Similarly, preserving residual hearing through surgical technique advancements is another vital emerging area that is helping improve cochlear implant efficacy.

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