October 6, 2014 in Research
WIRED.CO.UK / SCIENCE
06 OCTOBER 14
by JOSEPH BENNINGTON-CASTRO
American ecologist and hearing specialistCaitlin O’Connell-Rodwell is developing a new hearing aid inspired by elephants. Along with sound, elephants pick up ground-based vibrations, as the skin of their feet and trunks contains mechanoreceptors that can sense them.
“We [humans] have the same ability to detect vibrations, but people with normal hearing don’t focus on it,” says O’Connell-Rodwell.
She has partnered with HNU Photonics, a research company based on Maui, Hawaii, to develop a patch that adheres to the skin; this transduces sound into vibrations, which the brain interprets as a kind of Braille or Morse code. When participants touch the device, tiny electromagnets vibrate. Mechanoreceptors sense the vibrations, and send signals to the brain.
It turns out that the vibrotactile sense of the hearing-impaired is more pronounced than that of people with normal hearing, because their brains process the stimuli in the unused auditory cortex. “There’s a big population that is underserved… and could benefit from the same use of vibrations as elephants.”