This is kind of other-worldly…. so much has changed in the last 15 years…. Processors are now the size of large hearing aids, and individual wires inside the ear have been replaced with tiny electrode pairs. On a related note, the Wikipedia article on CIs has a lot of info.
TIME magazine – March 12, 1984
Success for the “Bionic Ear”
A tiny computer promises to bring sound to 70% of the deaf
For seven years, David Columpus could not understand television programs or carry on conversations with friends. Reason: an illness had left him totally deaf. But in 1977 life began to change radically for the former owner of a Michigan glass-recycling plant. He volunteered to take part in an experiment at the University of Utah Medical Center in which eight tiny wires were implanted inside his inner ear and linked to a plastic plug, the size of a nickel, inserted in his skull behind the left ear. On one memorable day, the plug was connected to a large central computer, and for the first time in years, Columpus could hear the spoken word. “When we disconnected for lunch, there was a very dead feeling, a very shut-off feeling,” he recalls. “I was affected more by my hearing’s being taken away than by receiving it.”
Today Columpus is rarely shut off.
Last April the large computer was replaced with a microprocessor, the size of a Sony Walkman, that he wears on his belt. Columpus, 52, who now works as a counselor to the deaf in San Diego, has regained 70% of his understanding of the spoken word, although in groups he can decipher only one voice at a time. He can hear music played on a single instrument; orchestral sounds are garbled. This wedding of the computer to the hearing aid is the work of Kolff Medical, Inc., the makers of the artificial heart that was implanted in the late Barney Clark.
Over the next few months, others will be joining Columpus in the joys of rediscovering hearing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in recent days has approved the implantation of the new device, called Ineraid, in 20 more people. Kolff will donate the first two devices, but the other patients will each have to pay about $10,000. In addition, implant surgery at he Utah medical center will cost approximately $7,000. Doctors say that the implantation is comparable to root-canal surgery, but pain and discomfort disappear after about a week. Thereafter, the barely visible implanted plug requires no special care. Dr. Michael M. Merzenich, director of the Coleman Laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco, praises Ineraid. “I think that ultimately a very high level of speech comprehension will be achieved,” he says.
The electronic ear is not a new idea.
The House Ear Institute in Los Angeles has performed about 330 implants of its devices since 1973. But these implants, as well as others done at Coleman, Stanford University and the University of Melbourne in Australia, have met with only modest success in duplicating the complex way in which the inner ear translates sound for the brain. Dr. James Parkin, who is chief of surgery at the Utah medical center and will perform the implants, believes Ineraid would make it possible to restore the hearing of about 70% of the 500,000 deaf people in the U.S. who at present cannot benefit from hearing aids.
These people have lost their hearing usually because disease has destroyed the functioning of the cochlea, a snail-shaped organ the size of a pea. Inside the cochlea are thousands of microscopic cells that transmit sound as electrical signals through the auditory nerve to the brain.
Ineraid duplicates this function. A tiny microphone, worn around the ear, is connected to a microprocessor, which turns sound waves into electrical impulses and feeds them through the implanted wires into the auditory nerve. Six of the wires are implanted in those areas of the cochlea that would normally transmit different frequencies, from high to low. The remaining two wires are grounded to muscle tissue to complete the electrical circuit. Says Parkin: “It’s like taking the cochlea outside the head and putting it on your belt.”