A team of researchers from Western’s National Center for Audiology (NCA), led by director Susan Scollie, has won a Governor General’s Award for Innovation (GGIA) for developing the world’s first pediatric hearing aid prescription software.
The team is made up of Scolia, pioneer hearing researcher Richard Seewald, Marlene BagattoSteve Beaulac, Leonard Cornelisse, Shane Moodie and Sheila Moodie.
The awards celebrate excellence in innovation; inspire Canadians to become entrepreneurs; and fostering a culture of innovation that impacts the lives of Canadians.
Desired Sensation Level (DSL) software has helped clinicians around the world provide infants and children with access to sound by helping clinicians assess, treat, fit, and properly tune hearing aids to specific patient needs; improve hearing outcomes, while improving the long-term educational and social potential of children with permanent hearing loss.
“This is only possible because a long line of Western researchers – starting with Dr. Seewald, who held the Canada Research Chair in Childhood Hearing from 2002 to 2009, and ‘to today’s teams of clinicians and scientists – are committed to the best research, the best clinical care, and the most rigorous translation of those two things to commercialization,’ said Scolia.
When a rubella pandemic hit in the 1960s and 1970s, the tools and technology did not exist to help babies who lost their hearing. He highlighted how critical and challenging it is to develop robust hearing protocols for infants and young children with hearing loss.
But the crisis triggered Seewald then the next generation of researchers at Western University to innovate and develop accurate hearing tests and beneficial hearing aids.
Through iterations including painstaking manual calculations, algorithms tested on an early Atari computer, and programs later distributed on floppy disks, the technology evolved.
Today, 40 years later, their meticulous software and processes are integrated into hearing aids around the world and enable children and people of all ages to receive personalized hearing care.
“Up to the decibel”
Scollie said developing baby hearing aids comes with its own set of hurdles. The first is the challenge of discovering how well or poorly young people process sound. And even if they do fix that, the next hurdle is understanding whether a hearing aid provides the best fit and fit for infants to access sound.
“If the hearing aid is too loud, the baby can’t tell. If it’s too soft, the baby can’t tell them. So we really, really need to nail it.
The DSL software helps solve both of these problems: DSL can use measurements of the baby’s brain to calculate the level of amplification needed in the hearing aid, then adjust the prescription based on the speech level.
And the process is precise, able to determine “down to the decibel” the safest and most effective levels for each user, Scollie said.
DSL 5.0 (the latest iteration of the line) measures over 250 parameters per hearing aid – a giant leap from the early days when researchers created and verified processes with pencil and paper, then using a calculator.
Today, their hearing aid prescription software and clinical procedures are used worldwide. They are the primary strategy in 80-95% of pediatric clinics in North America and recommended best practice in Canada, the UK, Germany and many other countries around the world.
Virtually every major hearing aid company in the world has this software built into their products.
A western “success story”
DSL and its iterations are registered trademarks. Marketing is handled by WORLDDiscoveriesthe technology transfer partnership between Western, the Robarts Research Institute and the Lawson Health Research Institute.
Licensing agreements ensure that manufacturers maintain quality control standards as set by the team and by research-backed studies. Manufacturers, in turn, send their hearing aids and software back to NCA for testing to verify accuracy.
“When they know what it’s for and why, for babies and children, it’s comforting for them to make sure they’re doing it right too,” Scollie said.
The success of this technology can be attributed to a large collaborative team that had its genesis with Seewald and his original team, and evolved through the formation of the NCA in 2001.
Scollie noted that GGIA recognition is a Western achievement as much as an NCA and DSL achievement. She was part of the first year of the Ph.D. in Auditory Science at Western, and all of the principal investigators are also trained in Western.
NCA’s contributions to this specialty include more than 100 publications in leading, high-impact scientific journals.
“We are one of the largest research centers in the world.
The team is one of six GGIA recipients across the country this year. The Innovation Award will be presented in a virtual ceremony by Governor General Mary Simon on May 19.
“The awards are not intended for lifetime achievement or innovation that has yet to demonstrate impact,” the award page reads. “Rather, by recognizing active and current innovators across our economy and society, the awards help foster an active culture that celebrates innovation that has a meaningful impact on our lives.