EPFL is developing next-generation hearing implants

Today hearing loss or deafness can be
compensated with medical devices called a cochlear implant. But for a small group
of patients who have a damaged inner ear the cochlear implant is not suitable.
Instead we need to deliver the sound information to the auditory brainstem,
and this can be done with an electrode array called the Auditory Brainstem
Implant. A challenge with current clinical ABIs is their relative
stiffness so that the electrode do not selectively stimulate the auditory
brainstem. We teamed up with the group of Professor Dan Lee at Mass. Eye and Ear in Boston to design a novel technology to manufacture soft Auditory Brainstem
Implants. One of the challenges was that we wanted to use the same material that
are used in the clinic but these materials are rigid so we introduced a
way to engineer elasticity in these same materials. And so our idea can be
explained very easily with this plastic foil. So this is a plastic that cannot be
deformed but as soon as you introduce some cuts and that was inspired by the
Japanese art kirigami which is the art of cutting paper, we optimized shapes
like these “Y” shapes that we can cut in films, and it allows strechability. And
this same concept was applied on the macro scale not only on plastic foils
but also on metals such as platinum to engineer elastic and soft ABIs.
So we first engineered ABIs scale for mice so we can test if the devices were
functional and could stimulate the auditory pathways, and that was done
successfully in animal models, and in a second step, we wanted to make sure that
devices could be made for humans and with our collaborators in Boston we
validated that this new devices soft ABIs were compatible with surgical
techniques that are already used in the clinic today, as well as imaging such as
MRI. And now there’s a lot of steps that need to be done before we can
actually test it in humans

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