Bahnmueller suffers from hearing loss so severe that a year ago he underwent surgery to install a cochlear implant—an electronic device in the inner ear that replaces the usual hearing mechanism. Around a million patients have undergone this increasingly mainstream form of treatment, and that’s just a fraction of those who could benefit from it. (Of the 360 million people worldwide with hearing loss, about 10 percent would qualify for the surgery.) “For those who reach a point where hearing aids no longer help, this is the only solution,” says Allison Biever, an audiologist in Englewood, CO who works with implant patients. “It’s like restoring a signal in a radio station.”
Cochlear implants bypass the usual hearing process by embedding a device in the inner ear and connecting it via electrodes to the nerve that sends audio signals to the brain. The implant gets sound from an external microphone and sound processor that usually sits behind the ear. Until now, users have had to deal with balky remote controls to adjust the settings. And dealing with smartphones has required a separate piece of equipment that vexes communication thanks to its low quality and annoying lags. But Bahnmueller, a 49-year-old executive in automotive safety, has recently been testing a new solution. The reason I was coming through so clearly is that his over-the-ear device linked to the implant was streaming directly from his iPhone—essentially putting the conversation in his head.
The system he was using came from a collaboration between Apple and Cochlear, a company that has been involved with implant technology since the treatment’s early days. The firms announced last week that the first product based on this approach, Cochlear’s Nucleus 7 sound processor, won FDA approval in June—the first time that the agency has approved such a link between cochlear implants and phones or tablets. Those using the system can not only get phone calls directly routed inside their skulls, but also stream music, podcasts, audio books, movie soundtracks, and even Siri—all straight to the implant.
Only about 10% of those who suffer hearing loss are eligible for Cochlear implants, and of those of course not nearly all will receive one. But for those who do, this is life-changing technology.