Electronic devices known as cochlear implants are game-changers for many patients who are profoundly deaf or have a severe level of hearing impairment. Larry Krehbiel, for example, was deaf for 30 years, but a cochlear implant now allows him to hear human speech and the peaceful sounds of nature.
But cochlear implants do have their limitations. For example, many of them cannot pick up the sounds of music.
“Music is a problem for most of the cochlear implant users,” said Kaibao Nie, an electrical engineer at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Now otolaryngologists have a new way to help cochlear implant patients hear music by enhancing the implant's ability to hear the sounds of musical notes, which tend to be more complex than sounds from regular speech.
Computer software helps make the pitch and tones in music more clear for cochlear implant users.
“We can change the stimuli delivered to the implant,” said Jay Rubenstein, an otolaryngologist at the University of Washington.
“The things that we’ve been looking for in music is, one, whether you can tell the difference between musical instruments, and number two, can you tell what melody is playing,” said Les Atlas, another electrical engineer at the University of Washington.
Krehbiel said that this new approach has not only helped him hear music better, but has inspired him to start making music.
“My retirement gift was a grand piano!” laughed Krehbiel.
The scientists hope that improving the way cochlear implant patients hear music will also improve their ability to hear speech in noisy situations, or when music is playing in the background.