University of Wisconsin researcher develops OTC hearing aid

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A new type of hearing aid developed by a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee engineer could make devices much more accessible to the millions of people who need them. An article detailing the research appears on the University’s website.

Only one in six people in the United States who could benefit from hearing aids use them. The reason is mainly the cost. Basic health insurance does not cover hearing aids, a situation that has caused hearing health inequities for low-income and rural residents.

Yi Hu, an associate professor of electrical engineering at UWM, has designed a prototype device that, when paired with a smartphone app, approximates the experience of an audiologist. He envisions consumers with mild to moderate hearing loss being able to buy a hearing aid over-the-counter, much like you can buy reading glasses at the drugstore without a prescription.

Since Hu’s technology doesn’t require fitting by an audiologist like traditional hearing aids do, it could drop the cost of quality hearing loss treatment from thousands to hundreds of dollars. Through his start-up, My Hearing Care, established in 2017, he plans to launch his device on the mass market in 2023.

“If widely adopted, it will revolutionize the hearing industry,” Hu said.

The market for over-the-counter hearing aids will open wide once the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) issues guidelines for them, which should happen soon. Until then, Hu said, consumers have no way of knowing which products work and which don’t.

There are already devices on the market called Personal Sound Amplification Products, or PSAPs, and some of them have settings controlled by smartphone apps. But most are simply sound enhancers, and the FDA won’t allow them to market these products as a treatment for hearing loss.

Hu’s prototype looks more like an entry-level hearing aid than a PSAP. To improve hearing, a device usually needs to do more than just turn up the volume. Hearing assessment also involves the frequencies of sound waves entering the ear – how fast they vibrate. This is equivalent to the pitch we hear perceived as high or low.

With the help of the app, users of Hu’s device can perform their own basic hearing test to get an audiogram, the same process audiologists use to prescribe traditional hearing aids. An audiogram is a measurement of the quietest sounds a person can hear at different pitches or frequencies. With audiogram data, users can then find the exact settings that match their hearing needs in different environments.

People have different sensitivity to sounds at different frequencies. Ordering in a drive-thru and watching TV at home will involve a mix of very different frequencies. And each frequency will be amplified differently, he said. When hearing is impaired, it becomes more difficult to hear certain sounds in the wide frequency range of normal conversation. Consonants, for example, are often in the upper frequency range of 2,000 to 8,000 hertz. As you age, many lose perception of the highest frequency in the range.

Hu’s device not only allows the user to accurately test their own hearing, but it also allows them to customize their settings to suit their needs in each new environment and then save the setting. There is complexity in science. For example, a person’s audiogram may show that their hearing is within the normal range, yet they still have difficulty hearing in certain situations.

The ability to customize settings is limited or not available in most current over-the-counter devices on the market, Hu said.

“Only you know what you can hear,” he said. “So unless we allow users to personally tune the device, it’s not going to be an individualized solution.”

Source: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

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