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Hearing with light

An international research team led by Göttingen develops a cochlear implant that uses light signals to stimulate the inner ear (March 2014).

Birdsongs and music—these are listening experiences, the individuals with severe hearing impairments may still not enjoy despite modern technology. Hearing aids such as cochlear implants (CI) do not supply the required hearing quality. How can hearing with cochlear implants be improved? An international research team led by scientists at the University of Göttingen and the Bernstein Focus Neurotechnology in Göttingen has explored a new method. The idea: using light for stimulation instead of electric power as before. For the first time, the researchers have succeeded in activating the auditory system by optogenetic stimulation with light in an animal model.

During this method, light-sensitive signaling proteins are genetically integrated in cells. Serving as a "light switch”, they allow the sensory cells to become activated by light signals. This method has a distinct advantage over the stimulation with power: “Because light can be conveniently focused, optical stimulation promises the use of tens to hundreds of independent stimulation channels. This innovation has the potential to fundamentally improve the discrimination of sound frequency and intensity by CI users. However, before translation into the clinic can be achieved, cochlear optogenetics will already be of enormous use in auditory research," says Prof. Dr. Tobias Moser of the Department of Otolaryngology at the University Medical Center Göttingen, the corresponding author and team leader.

Töne mit Licht hören_image_05-03-14

Image: Working prinicple of the cochlear implant. Above: electrical implant in the cochlea, the current spreads widely. Below: future optical implant with dozens of micro-LEDs.
Copyright (including icon): University Medical Center Göttingen

Please read more in the complete press release by the University Medical Center Göttingen - Georg August University Göttingen.