“Hearing” with your tongue: Will it make cochlear implants obsolete?

Readers of Holly Hosford-Dunn’s blog Hearing Economics have learned recently about some highly innovative “hearables” that have entered or may soon enter the market.

Following is an even more futuristic product—or at least potential product—that may some day improve life for people with hearing loss.


An ITM (in-the-mouth) device

FORT COLLINS, CO—A team of faculty and graduate students at Colorado State University (CSU) is working on a concept that involves enabling users to hear through their tongue.

John Williams with a prototype of the device. Photo: Courtesy of CSU
John Williams with a prototype of the device.
Photo: Courtesy of CSU

According to Source, a CSU publication, the researchers foresee a time when, instead of having a cochlear implant surgically placed inside the skull, patients with severe to profound hearing loss will simply place a small retainer full of electrodes into their mouth, then press it with their tongue to hear. What they hear will be electrical impulses sent by a Bluetooth-enabled earpiece.

John Williams, a CSU associate professor of mechanical engineering who is heading this project, said that the system is “much simpler than undergoing surgery, and we think it will be a lot less expensive than cochlear implants.”

As with a cochlear implant, a microphone near the ear detects sound, and then, bypassing the damaged areas of the patient’s ear, transmits the sound directly to a receiver where it is converted into electric impulses. Those impulses are sent directly to the auditory nerve, where, over time, the brain learns to recognize them as words and other sound information.

However, with the CSU technology, the receiver that processes the signal from the earpiece is located, not inside the skull, but in the mouth. When users press their tongue against the device, they feel electric impulses as a tingling or vibrating sensation. With practice, the researchers believe, the brain will learn to interpret specific patterns as words, thus allowing someone to “hear” with their tongue.

Williams and a CSU grad student, JJ Moritz, have been testing prototypes of the technology, and have been sufficiently encouraged to file a provisional patent and to launch a company, Sapien LLC, to help advance the technology.

Leslie Stone-Roy
Leslie Stone-Roy

They have been joined by Leslie Stone-Roy, a CSU neuroscientist, who is an expert on taste receptors on the tongue. She will help determine which parts of the tongue detect electrical impulses and if those key receptor areas are consistent from person to person. If so, a standardized mouthpiece might work for many people with hearing loss.

Williams told Kortney Rolston, a writer for Source, “Cochlear implants are very effective and have transformed many lives, but not everyone is a candidate.” He added, “We think our device will be just as effective, but will work for many more people and cost less.”

Moreover, unlike surgical implantation of a cochlear device, popping the CSU device into the mouth will do no damage to the sensory cells in the inner ear.

1 Comment

  1. Actually, I already referred a patient who has badly ossified cochleas from bacterial meningitis to the clinical trials of this device.

    Due to the power demands of the receiver-stimulator appliance as well as the clinically proven efficacy of CI’s, I doubt this will be a replacement for these devices. However, given the much more intensive surgical intervention required for auditory brainstem implants (ABI’s), this may be a viable alternative for the constituency where CI’s are not indicated, such as for common cavity, Mondini’s, missing auditory nerve, and the aforementioned ossified cochleas~

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