As Executive Chef of Wayzata Country Club, Paul Neu listens all day.
In the galley, he must hear his crew over slamming pans, rumbling coolers, and the hum of a range hood vent. In the dining room, he visits customers while surrounded by background noise and the murmur of nearby conversations.
For 14 years, Neu, 55, relied on hearing aids to sharpen his aging ears. He is increasingly satisfied with updates to his in-ear devices; its latest iteration comes with built-in sensors that use artificial intelligence to amplify sound.
“It automatically adapts to the different environments I find myself in. I don’t have to do anything or even think about it,” he says.
It’s an exciting era for hearing innovation, and Minnesota is a hub for emerging options. It is at the center of advances in the development of high-tech hearing aids. It’s also a research hotspot that offers ways to not only manage hearing loss, but embrace the bold goal of bringing it back.
The University of Minnesota is in the midst of a five-year, $9.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a device that could be implanted directly into the auditory nerve to restore hearing.
Clinical trials for a drug that delays age-related hearing loss are underway at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Elsewhere, research teams are working to regrow hair cells in the cochlea that translate vibrations into signals sent to the brain. Due to aging or prolonged exposure to noise, these microscopic hairs are damaged or destroyed.
“Nothing is yet approved for clinical practice, but there is promising evidence of regeneration in animal models. This gives us hope that regeneration could be achieved,” says Gayla Poling, Director of Diagnostic Audiology Research in Mayo.
Poling is also excited about a new diagnostic tool she is using. It examines hair cell function and allows hearing care professionals to detect changes at an earlier stage.
“Before, patients could be told that everything was fine. This test allows us to intervene earlier and focus our treatment,” says Poling. “We are leveraging a robust expansion of technology at the ear level.”
Andrew Oxenham, a professor in the departments of psychology and otolaryngology at U and director of the auditory perception and cognition laboratory, studies how the brain interprets acoustic signals received from the ear. He is launching a study at seven universities across the United States and Canada that will seek to understand how the intricacies of pitch perception can extend hearing.
“People with musical training learn to follow rising and falling pitch contours. We are investigating whether this skill could help people with hearing loss focus more critically and reduce speech perception deficits,” says -he.
“We’re interested in rigorous science to find out if this is applicable and worth pursuing. In the long run, this could lead to different treatments – with a technique, not a device.”
The best aid for age-related hearing loss remains in-the-ear hearing aids; 3 to 4 million Americans are equipped with it each year.
“The computing power of hearing aids today is greater than that of a mainframe computer 20 years ago,” says Oxenham.
Until a century ago, people living with hearing loss only had funnel-shaped ear trumpets to amplify sound. Bulky vacuum-tube hearing aids were first made in the 1920s, and portable devices arrived in 1936; they relied on an amplifier suspended around the user’s neck and a hand-held microphone for reporter-style conversations. With the invention of the transistor after World War II, hearing aids declined dramatically; they got even smaller with microprocessors and multi-channel amplitude compression invented in the 1970s.
With digital technology, the next generation of hearing aids today are multifunctional microcomputers.
“These aren’t your grandmother’s hearing aids. They’re turning into high-tech devices that improve overall health and well-being,” says Dave Fabry, chief innovation officer at Eden-based Starkey. Prairie, the largest American hearing aid manufacturer.
Fabry calls it “the golden age for hearing-health patients,” pointing to Starkey’s latest devices that use smartphone connections to track and monitor physical activity and diagnose conditions such as high blood pressure. They can stream podcasts, instructions and phone communications and can be programmed to detect falls or serve as virtual assistants that offer personalized help like medication reminders.
“They’re very intricate, but we want them to be seamless and effortless for someone in their 50s or 90s,” says Fabry.
The industry got to work to solve the most persistent user complaint: how ambient sound interferes with listening to a single voice.
“Devices in the new product family use artificial intelligence to analyze a challenging environment. It takes an acoustic snapshot and optimizes it for that situation,” he says.
Answer the call
Paul Neu hearing aids do more than amplify sound.
His Starkey Livio AI model is customized to provide in-ear translation so he understands his Spanish-speaking cooks; it allows her to seamlessly answer calls without touching her phone.
“It’s improved my efficiency. I can cut fish while I’m calling an order,” he says.
As important as the aid is in performing his job, Neu finds that his hearing aids enhance his most meaningful relationships.
“I live in a girls’ home, two girls and my wife. With my hearing loss, I have a high-pitched deficiency and I can’t hear women’s and children’s voices well,” he says. “They thought I was ignoring them but I couldn’t hear them. Now I answer when they call me.”