January 23, 2018
In simple terms, cybernetics is the science of how the brain and nervous system interact with mechanical-electrical implants / prosthetics. This means that folks with cochlear implants are technically cyborgs (cybernetic organisms). Cool!
For those of us who don’t already know, a cochlear implant is a hearing device that has an external portion that is worn over the ear and an internal portion that is implanted by an otolaryngologist (ENT). The implanted portion consists of an electrode array that is carefully threaded through the cochlea (inner ear) and interacts with the auditory nerve as well as a receiver that picks up information from the transmitter that is worn over the ear in the same style as a common behind-the-ear hearing aid. Unlike a hearing aid, a cochlear implant is designed to function for the ear itself and sends sound information directly to your brain via the auditory nerve.
Now, this isn’t to say that people with a cochlear implant are the only cyborgs out there. Do you have a pacemaker? You’re a cyborg! Do you have a prosthetic limb that assists your day-to-day activities? You’re a cyborg! There are even people out there who are working on creating implantable devices, not to assist or repair a physical handicap, but to enhance a healthy individual. One completely healthy cybernetic pioneer is Neil Harbisson, a Catalan-raised, British-born artist who has been officially granted governmental recognition for being a cyborg. Harbisson was born entirely color-blind and eventually designed a device to help him “see” color by recruiting one of his other senses: hearing! He designed an antenna that is implanted in the back of his skull and has a camera that hovers over his forehead. This camera picks up color wavelengths and translates them to sound waves that are then vibrated through his skull (much like the way a bone-anchored hearing aid works).
Harbisson has studied what colors emit which wavelengths and matched them up to similar-looking sound wavelengths. There is a YouTube video (http://munsell.com/color-blog/neil-harbisson-hearing-colors/) where he has created a sample mix of colors and tones. Listen carefully and you may be able to hear when the tones change!
Cybernetics is one of the hottest topics in research, and hearing loss is becoming a bigger topic in legislature. Hopefully, these two fields will continue to grow, and grow together, to assist our own population of patients and families. Hearing aid research, bone-anchored hearing aids, and cochlear implants are all going to explode with new features over the next few decades so prepare yourself for the Rise of the Cyborgs!
Fun Hearing Fact: Believe it or not, everyone has hairy ears! Well, not necessarily everyone, and it’s not exactly hair. In the cochlea (the snail-shaped inner ear organ) there are rows of sensory organelles called “stereocilia,” or hair cells. These cells are not actually made of hair, they just look like it. We experience hearing loss because these irreplaceable hair cells get bent, damaged, or break off entirely due to trauma, loud noises, disease, or medications.