CSU team developing mouthpiece to help the hearing-impaired

Seth Bodine

For people with hearing impairments, not everyone can use hearing aids and cochlear implants to hear. But, with a new device developed by a team at Colorado State University, the tongue will act as a substitute  for the ears.

CSU developers of the technology include Leslie Stone-Roy, assistant professor of biomedical sciences; John Williams, associate professor of mechanical engineering; and graduate students in mechanical engineering Marco Martinez and JJ Moritz.

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The mouthpiece being developed at CSU will act as a hearing substitution for those who cannot use hearing aids. (Seth Bodine l Collegian)

The team is developing a mouthpiece that will help people with hearing impairments by using tongue stimulation. The device uses a microphone, and a system that takes auditory information to process and encode it into a pattern of electrical stimuli that is sent to the mouthpiece.

“So, what we are doing is developing a mouthpiece that have electrodes on it, and these electrodes are going to stimulate the touch sensation on your tongue in specific patterns,” Stone-Roy said. “So, with training, people can learn to associate the touch stimulus with auditory signals coming in.”

While the device is currently using a computer for processing and encoding, it will eventually be on smartphone.

Stone-Roy said learning to interpret the electric stimulus will take time, and compared it to learning braille. Marco Martinez, a mechanical engineering graduate student and research assistant, has developed a vocabulary game for the device.

“(It’s a) quiz with different words at the top, and (it) plays them out loud, which you can feel them, get to know them. You know, once you kind of get comfortable, you can get quizzed like a flashcard game,” Martinez said. “They play a word on your tongue, then ask you to pick from a short list of which word you thought it was.”

Martinez said during preliminary trials, people were able to identify individual words, but said it was a big learning curve. More trials hope to see how long the participants take to learn words by the end of the Fall 2016 semester.

Stone-Roy said the driving force behind the project is John Williams, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. He was interested after he started to lose hearing from working around loud noises and heard people were using tongue stimulation for other applications.

Stone-Roy said that the project started about two years ago, and received grant funding from the office of economic development and international trade from the state of Colorado, and another from the City of Fort Collins.

Stone-Roy said that because the device has the capability to translate various different forms of information, they are trying to get different forms of funding.

“As you can imagine, we’re not limited to auditory information,” Stone-Roy said. “We can put pretty much anything on those electrodes that we wanted to. Any stuff that people can’t normally detect, like infrared information or something like that. So we’re going after different types of funding.”

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Stone-Roy said they have turned in a pre-proposal for a grant that could be funded by the Army. Martinez described how the device has capabilities to be used by the military.

“The idea is that the tongue might give them some sort of other avenue of giving them some sort of information, whatever that needs to be,” Martinez said.

Stone-Roy and Martinez said that there is more work to be done before the mouthpiece is fully developed. They will be working with an orthodontic company that is familiar with Food and Drug Administration standards and continue to encode the mouthpieces to fit a few different models based on tongue sensitivity.

“So we’re really just trying to nail down how we need to design the actual mouthpieces and how the software needs to work in order to make this a viable technology for everyone out there, everyone who needs it or everyone who would be eligible for it,” Martinez said.

Collegian News Editor Seth Bodine can be reached at sbodine@collegian.com or on Twitter @sbodine120.