Can We Protect Cochlear Implant Patients From Signal Jamming?

Robert Traynor
May 22, 2012

This week at Hearing International, we are proud to have our guest author Dr. Tarek El Dessouki, discuss a very real problem that is a significant issue to cochlear implant patients in the Middle East.  This area of the world has seen significant turmoil in the past number of years. The conflict of military interests and the  need to hear and understand with a cochlear implant offers an interesting dichotomy that is too often not  even considered.  Although this issue is virtually unheard of in the United States, Dr.  Dessouky has patients where this issue of significant everyday concern.  He discusses the very real problems that are part of signal jamming in Iraq and other areas where cochlear implants and military operations coexist.

The problem has been noted by parents of Iraqi children with cochlear implants who start hysterically screaming whenever a military convoy passes by. An investigation found that the reason for this situation was the military use of signal jamming technology as a means of protecting convoys from roadside bombs or Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).   Signal jamming is commonly used in the security community to disable these roadside IED bombs.
Signal jamming works  by transmitting wideband frequency waves that jam the receivers of roadside bombs, thereby cutting off  communication with remotely controlled detonators.  Apparently, what was happening with the implant wearers was that the receiver coil was transmitting these these high power signal to the implanted electrodes in the cochlea, thereby stimulating the auditory nerve in a bizarre way.  It is difficult to assess the amount of pain experience by these children.  The parents were advised to tell their children to turn off their external receiver and to stay far away whenever they saw a military convoy.
This situation has led me to think about the vulnerability of cochlear implant patients to similar or extrapolated scenarios and the need to develop an efficient way of protecting patients in such cases.  For example, researchers at MIT and UMass  have been working on developing a signal jamming protection for individuals using wireless implants (mainly pacemakers & drug pumps).
In the case of cochlear implants, serious limitations on size and power consumption may make adding a similar signal jamming protection module impractical.  Not to mention that there are estimated to be more than 250,000 patients with cochlear implants worldwide, making it nearly impossible to bring them back for additional surgeries.  Hence, I believe it is our ethical commitment toward our patients to address this vulnerability in current cochlear implant technology, and/ or at least assess the magnitude of the problem.

 This Week’s Guest Author:

Tarek El Dessouki, M.D.,  is a 2002 Audiological Medicine graduate of the Cairo University Medical School in Cairo, Egypt.  He is currently Lecturer and Director of Audiological Medicine at the BeniSwif Medical School, BeniSwif, Egypt.  He is a member of the Egyptian Syndicate for Medical Doctors, The Egyptian ORL Society and the American Academy of Audiology.

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  1. Bob – Thank you for the interesting article! I have forwarded this to cochlear implant users in Kuwait so they can raise awareness of the issue.

  2. This article is a real eye-opener for myself and people in my part of the world. Thanks Bob for the heads up and thank you Tina for forwarding it to me!

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