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.”
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.