Audiologists test whether light waves can produce better-sounding hearing aids

Researchers at Western University’s National Centre for Audiology are amplifying their expertise in independent product testing, as they examine the first commercial hearing aid to use light-pulse technology.

Western is the first Canadian site to work with the Earlens hearing aid, which was introduced into the American market in 2015 and more recently approved by Health Canada for domestic use.

“It’s the first trial of its kind in Canada and the only independent study the company has contracted,” said researcher Susan Scollie, associate professor in the School of Communications Sciences and with the National Centre for Audiology (NCA) at Western.

Manufacturers of the Earlens, a California company, say the new technology delivers a broader bandwidth of audio — better amplifying lower and higher pitches and offering richer, more true-to-life sound than conventional hearing aids do.

“They’re going to a bandwidth that hearing aids haven’t historically been able to provide,” Scollie said. “But we don’t yet know if this will help the user. Our project will measure outcomes to see if there are real benefits available.”

Conventional hearing aids use a microphone that picks up sound, sends it to a tiny speaker and plays it back in the ear canal. The processor in the Earlens communicates with a light tip, which converts sound to invisible light pulses. Those pulses project onto a lens that rests on the eardrum to stimulate the wearer’s natural hearing system.

NCA’s research will take place using accepted scientific methods, with a double-blind study. Wearers will complete a battery of hearing tests to probe Earlens performance for sound quality for speech and for music, as well as for performance in difficult “cocktail party” situations.

Suzanne Levy, director of clinical research at Earlens, said, “This is a landmark study for our company, as we are confident in what our technology delivers and are excited to have it tested at a respected and independent research facility, that happens to be Canadian.”

“It’s evidence-based product evaluation, which is what we do,” Scollie said. “As arm’s-length researchers, we test the manufacturer’s claim to improved sound quality; we don’t beat the drum for any specific company or technology and that’s why companies come to us for trusted third-party evaluations.”

The National Centre for Audiology is a state-of-the-art audiology research centre.  It has developed national protocols for pediatric hearing assessments, developed methods for hearing aid fitting and has tested numerous new devices for more than a dozen companies from countries all around the world.

MEDIA CONTACT: Debora Van Brenk, Media Relations Officer, Western University, 519-661-2111 x85165, or on mobile at 519-318-0657 and [email protected]

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