Harvard and MIT researchers develop innovative hearing aid chip

Signal-processing hearing aid chip developed at MIT and Harvard--Courtesy of MIT

Researchers at MIT's Microsystems Technology Laboratory (MTL) and physicians from Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (MEEI) developed an innovative, low-power signal-processing chip that could provide an alternative to cochlear implants.

Unlike traditional cochlear implants--which include a disk-shaped transmitter, wire, joint microphone and power source attached to the patient's ear--the low-power chip requires no external hardware. The device also uses natural mechanisms in a patient's middle ear to help increase sound. The chip could be wirelessly recharged and run for 8 hours on each charge.

The new chip could mean big things for an industry dominated by one player: Cochlear ($COH) largely holds market monopoly for cochlear implants, and raked in profits of $600 million in fiscal 2012 alone. In 2013, the Australian company generated buzz for its Nucleus 6 implant, which includes innovative features like wireless data streaming and automatic readjustment of sound settings.

But Cochlear took a hit in the second half of its fiscal year, with shares of its stock dropping 18%. The company attributed the change to customer anticipation of its Nucleus 6 device--although rivals in emerging markets didn't help. Competitors in China and India released cheaper cochlear implants in 2013, vying for a place in the billion-dollar market.

Smaller companies are also looking for their piece of the pie: California-based Sonitus Medical won FDA clearance in 2013 for its SoundBite hearing aid system--a device that is inserted into the mouth, and uses bone conduction to transmit sound through the teeth.

Researchers from Harvard and MIT will present a paper with their findings, along with a prototype charger, at the International Sold-State Circuits Conference this week. While the new chip remains in its nascent stages, its technology holds promise for companies looking to distinguish themselves in a cochlear-dominated industry.

- read MIT's release

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