New iPhone app is said to improve users’ hearing through targeted sound exposure

By David H. Kirkwood

LOS ANGELES–If you are among those who rushed out this month to get the new iPhone 5, the Apple App Store offers you more than 450,000 different apps to choose from in deciding which ones to download onto your iPhone.  One of the newest—and most unusual—is the Better Hearing app, which, according to The Good Ear Company, which developed it, will improve a person’s hearing—for a one-time charge of just $4.99.

The Los Angeles-based company says that the app doesn’t help people with hearing loss by amplifying what they hear. Rather, it actually improves their hearing through a proprietary technology called Threshold Sound Conditioning (TSC), which was developed by Earlogic, a Korean company.

The app has two parts. First, it performs a free online analysis to determine a person’s thresholds in the frequency range where their hearing is weakest. Then, for the $4.99 payment, it offers a therapy that seeks to improve the consumer’s hearing by means of extended exposure to sound that’s just audible to the user.  The Good Ear claims that sound conditioning for 30 minutes a day for 14 days will result in improved (i.e., lower) hearing thresholds.

This summer, the Better Hearing app won the Tesla Award (named for Nikola Tesla, the scientist who discovered early mobile communication) in the smartphone app category of the MobileBeat 2012 Innovation Competition.

The app, which is compatible with any version of the iPhone except the iPhone 3G, is available at the App Store.

 

TODAY AN APP, TOMORROW AN AID

Unlike a hearing aid, the Better Hearing phone app did not need to prove its efficacy to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before being put on the market. However, the company’s TSC-i48 hearing aid will require FDA approval.

The company is currently conducting a clinical study with the Stanford University Hospital/Palo Alto Medical Foundcation to test the efficacy of the instrument, which uses the TSC technology. The study is expected to be completed this year.

In an interview with Hearing News Watch, Kihong Bae, the 37-year-old CEO of The Good Ear Company, discussed the theory behind Threshold Sound Conditioning. According to what he called “traditional theory,” hearing loss that results from damage to hair cells is considered irreversible. However, he said, a large percentage of hearing loss is caused by hair cells that are not functioning as well as they did but are not dead. These hair cells’ function can be improved by the use of TSC therapy, he said.

Just as a regular physical exercise program will strengthen the body, Bae said that TSC, by presenting sound at a level and frequency that is “just audible” to a person with hearing loss provides a workout to the ear that over time improves the person’s hearing.

John Nahm, co-founder and VP of business development of The Good Ear, told the online publication VentureBeat that the conventional treatment for hearing loss “has been to amplify the sound through the use of hearing aids, which are actual mini-amplifiers placed in the ears.” But, he contended, “This amplification actually worsens the hearing by having the ear become used/trained to hear at a continuously increasing volume.”

Nahm, continued, “In contrast, our technology identifies the frequency band that the user experiences the most hearing deficiency in, relative to the other frequency bands, and applies sound therapy at the barely audible level to prompt the ear to become trained to hear at lower volume levels for that problem frequency area.”

 

EARLIER FINDINGS

While results from the Stanford University/Palo Alto Medical Foundation trials have not been published, Bae said that research conducted by Earlogic in Korea has shown the effectiveness of Threshold Sound Conditioning. A 2007 trial found that the nine hearing-impaired subjects exposed to the therapy experienced improvements in their pure-tone hearing thresholds of an average of 8.91 dB after just weeks of daily sound stimulation.


7 Comments

  1. So a person has a typical moderate to severe HF loss that is somehow brought up 9 dB. OK, great. But is the functional effect significant at all?

  2. @S.George – the technology works best if your hair cells are not dead. So, if you are completely deaf, it’s very unlikely you will experience a huge improvement (if any at all).
    @Michele – you are correct. There is no way to bring back dead hair cells. Our technology does not do that. What we do is we restore the functions of the ‘damaged’ hair cells. Too bad that most people think hearing loss is caused by hair cell death, when instead it is because of damaged hair cell functions. In these cases, we can definitely restore the hearing functions.

  3. This is a very small “improvement”. How was it determined? Conventionally accepted test-retest differences in threshold, i.e. from one test to another on the same individuals, are in the range of 5dB. Was the “improvement” frequency specific or across the entire frequency range? People are subjected to barley audible sounds all of the time, and therefore get a “workout” of their hair cells every day. Why is there not a universal improvement in hearing over time, if this theory is correct?

  4. Do the Better Hearing app and TSC technology help us deaf and hard of hearing individuals who have hearing aids and cochlear implant processors precisely programmed for our specific hearing loss?

    1. Another consumer rip off! Sounds like kids trying to bring dead worms back to life by putting them in water. Dead hair cells are dead and can’t be resurrected as much as we’d like them to.

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