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Changing the frequency of hearing aid technology

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Health Tech World reporter Joe Roberts spoke with two companies leading the way in developing cutting edge technology for the hard of hearing.

Hearing aid technology is moving fast. Companies around the world are making leaps in improving sound quality and using the likes of AI, machine learning and digital health to improve functionality and user experience.

Many hearing aids now connect with smartphones, with apps offering users the ability to change noise reduction settings, reduce wind noise and shape the sound by toggling high and low frequencies.

Some providers are also integrating telehealth services into their smartphone apps, offering hearing aid users a digital platform to access healthcare professionals.

Denmark-based ReSound, launched a service that allows its users to reach out to their hearing aid professional in real-time and flag up issues with their device.

The clinician can then make changes to the hearing aid remotely and send an updated programme to the user which they can upload to the device.

Around 80% of hearing aids sold today are behind-the-ear devices, meaning the microphone is located above the ears.

However, the outer part of the ear, known as the pinna, plays an integral role in how we hear. It amplifies sound between 2000 and 7000 hertz, allows us to spatially separate sounds and provides front-back directionality.

By putting the microphone behind the ear, hearing aid users lose these functions, creating the impression that all sound is coming from the front.

For its latest hearing aid launched in late August, ReSound has developed a new technology called microphone and receiver-in-ear (M&RIE), which puts the speaker and the microphone together within the ear for the first time.

The M&RIE technology in the ReSound One hearing aid gives users the natural amplifications, acoustics localisation and spatial perception that the ear provides.

Speaking to Health Tech World, ReSound’s Chief Audiology Officer, Laurel Christensen says: “It seems like such an easy thing and some people may be asking how we haven’t done this before. But the reality is that if you put a speaker and a microphone together you get massive feedback.

“So, there has been many years of work to figure out how to keep this stable and how to get good amplification. We’re trying to make the sound louder, while at the same time controlling feedback.”

This is achieved by digitally cancelling the feedback. When a patient is fitted with a hearing aid, a healthcare professional carries out a calibration, which involves taking a picture of the feedback.

A filter, designed to be an exact opposite to the feedback, is placed within its path to remove unpleasant buzzing or hissing sounds.

The issue of natural amplification is a longstanding issue in the hearing aid sector and ReSound says it has been developing its solution for several years. According to Christensen, the M&RIE technology is a breakthrough.

She says: “Every once in a while, you have hearing aid technology that really does change the course of the industry.

“Most people who wear hearing aids today are elderly. They have normal hearing their whole lives until it starts to deteriorate at around 70. When you put a hearing aid on them, they can hear, but it sounds processed.

“By putting the microphone inside the ear, it sounds like what they heard before their hearing deteriorated.

“Two or three months before the ReSound One launched to the market, I wore them full time. At first, I didn’t think they were working, but when I checked the remote control on my phone it showed that it was, I just couldn’t tell because the sound was so natural.”

Many hearing aid providers are going beyond hearing correction, developing devcies that act as a wearable device.

For example, US Company, Starkey is using AI, sensors and digital technology to track hearing aid users’ fitness, detect falls and translate languages.

The latter is achieved through the Starkey app which connects to Google Translate. The hearing aid can detect a foreign language which is then translated into English via the connected smartphone and streamed back into the hearing aid and transcribed on-screen. As of May 2019, Starkey’s latest devices, Livio AI can be operated via voice command.

Technical director at Starkey, Paul Lamb says: “We took a bit of a different slant from our competitors, because one thing that we were really keen to promote is the fact that hearing aids can do so much more than just aid your hearing.

“We’ve developed a product that contains sensors on board the hearing aids, such as accelerometers and gyroscopes that can add additional features and tools for people.

“We call it a ‘healthable’ hearing aid. You can use it to assist your hearing but also track your own health. We also built artificial intelligence and sensors into the product which can understand if somebody has taken a fall and alert a family member.”

The latest innovation from Starkey is an artificial Intelligence feature which makes instant fine tuning to the hearing aid when things are difficult to hear.

Hearing aid wearers typically have a base setting that is set up by their audiologist. This base setting works in most settings, however in some challenging listening places the base setting is not enough for them.

Starkey has enabled its hearing aids to ‘listen’ to the environment and filter out interfering background noise in order to enhance the speech.

ReSound has a similar function known as All Access Directionality which uses four microphones located above the ears to create a narrow directional beam pointed forwards which allows the hearing aid user to hear the person that they are talking to. This happens automatically depending on the amount of interfering background noise.

Christensen says: “The ReSound One has a unique automatic steering system. We turn on one set of hearing aids and use it as a directional response, while the other set of hearing aids allow you to hear what is around you. “Unless the noise gets extremely bad, we don’t turn both of the microphones on. We want to keep people in their regular environment.”

In recent years there has been an explosion of data linking hearing loss to other health conditions, from depression to dementia.

Starkey is providing hearing aids for an ongoing Europe-wide research project led by the University of Manchester called SENSE-cog.

Recent findings revealed that seven in ten Europeans over the age of 65 live with sight or hearing problems, with over two-thirds of these living with depression or dementia.

Lamb says: “The research project is all about trying to understand the interaction of two things; hearing and vision and what the effects of continuous use of hearing aids are on the effects of dementia.

“Preliminary findings suggest that if you wear hearing aids, you’re more involved with people, you interact with people and the effects of dementia could be reduced.”

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