Invisible Hearing Aids Just Got Smaller

hearing-aidAccording to the World Health Organization (WHO), hearing loss is the sixth most common medical disorder in the industrialized world. In the United States alone, 38 million people suffer from significant hearing loss, and still more suffer from mild to moderate hearing loss. Nevertheless, many people who would benefit from wearing a hearing aid hesitate to do so because of cosmetic concerns. The stigma of hearing loss is sufficient to keep these people from wearing hearing aids.

Invisible hearing aids technology and options already exist to help people who need hearing aids but are with too embarrassed to wear them as well as those who prefer a hearing aid that filters out more background noise. Scientists in Germany are working on a microsystem 50 times smaller than the existing microsystems already in use in invisible hearing aids and other tiny medical devices. These new microsystems can make medical devices like invisible hearing aids more comfortable, more efficient and, of course, smaller.

A Smaller, More Efficient Hearing Aid
The new microsystem’s dimensions are four millimeters by 4 millimeters by 1 millimeter; this makes it the smallest microsystem yet created for body area network (BAN) applications. It combines miniature antennas, high-frequency filters and system-on-chip integrated circuitry into a single minuscule package. All in all, the microsystem contains 19 individual components.

If you were to look at the microsystem from the outside, you wouldn’t be able to see all of its components; its ingenious packaging uses a revolutionary 3D stacking concept to make the most of the available space. The microsystem’s 19 components have been fitted together into separate modules that the researchers have stacked atop one another.

The researchers, who work with Fraunhofer Institute of Reliability and Microintegration IZM in Berlin, hope the new microsystem could be used to create a new invisible hearing aid that could be comfortably worn at all times. Ideally, the wearer wouldn’t even be able to feel the hearing aid. Its energy-efficient design, which uses a one-milliwatt battery, could give it a battery life of up to 20 weeks — that’s months longer than current invisible hearing aids can provide.

Better Hearing for All
Some doctors predict as invisible hearing aid technology becomes more sophisticated, more people will start wearing hearing aids. Visible hearing aids have their drawbacks; you can’t get them wet, even with sweat. You can’t listen to a personal music player with headphones. The microphone receiver is located on the outside of the ear, where it’s vulnerable to the wind and other sounds. And, of course, many people with mild-to-moderate hearing loss feel self-conscious when they wear visible hearing aids.

Invisible hearing aid technology allows a hearing aid to be placed entirely inside the ear canal. There, it’s not only invisible, but also sheltered from many of the sources of background noise. This is why invisible hearing aids are generally even more effective than their visible counterparts. Doctors say most people who wear invisible hearing aids love them.

Going Beyond Hearing Aids
While the new microsystem could definitely revolutionize treatments for hearing loss, that’s not its only potential application. The Fraunhofer scientists hope it could be used in pacemakers, implants and insulin pumps.

The developers are also working to create antenna and wireless protocols that could transmit crucial medical information — like blood pressure, blood glucose or pulse — directly to a supervising doctor’s smart phone or tablet. There would no longer be any need for a relay station, which is an extra device patients must wear in order to extend the range of their BAN wireless devices. Even more promising, the researchers are developing these new wireless protocols on the IEEE 802.15.4 and 802.15.6 standards, so devices containing the new microsystem can communicate digitally without relying on the Bluetooth signal. Many devices currently depend on Bluetooth which makes them more susceptible to interference from phones and other smart technology.

Invisible hearing aids shelter the wearer from much of the social stigma attached to hearing loss, enabling people with hearing loss to live more normal lives. That’s no small matter; at least 20 percent of American adults report some hearing loss, with 12 percent reporting severe hearing loss. Unfortunately, not all of these people wear hearing aids. Thanks to continuing advances in invisible hearing aid technology, hearing aids will only continue to get smaller and more comfortable to wear.