Bionic ear founder to post at La Trobe

Bionic ear founder to post at La Trobe

19 Dec 2008

Pioneer of cochlear implants Graeme Clark has taken up the first post of Distinguished Professor at La Trobe University in the quest for the next-generation hi-fi bionic ear.

Professor Clark joins La Trobe to establish the Graeme Clark Hearing and Neuroscience Unit in the School of Psychological Science where he will conduct research with Associate Professor Tony Paolini and Professor Edith Bavin, and work with other specialist groups dealing with hearing, speech and language.

He will be returning to his first love, auditory neurophysiology, that has been crucial in guiding him in developing the bionic ear, as well as continuing his strong commitment to speech science.

The La Trobe appointment coincides with the 30th anniversary of a world first in cochlear implant technology the moment of conclusive proof, defying all scientific prediction, that a deaf person could be helped to understand speech.

'It was just before Christmas in 1978,' Professor Clark recalls, 'when our audiologist was able to confirm that result. I went into the room next door and wept with joy.'

Announcing the La Trobe appointment, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Tim Brown said the new Unit has grown out of  Dr Paolini's advanced auditory neuroscience laboratory and will conduct world-leading research to develop a new generation of high-fidelity cochlear implants.

It will also be a focus for collaboration in speech science and the psychology of language for which Professor Edith Bavin, Professor Roger Wales and others at La Trobe University have established international reputations.

'The Graeme Clark Hearing and Neuroscience Unit forms part of the Universitys wide and distinctive focus on socially relevant research for 21st century communities being carried out under the umbrella of our Institute for Social Participation,' Professor Brown said.

The Institute will bring together researchers from various parts of the University aiming to improve opportunities for many people to enjoy life together.  La Trobe has research strengths in Health and Society as well as Human Behaviour, Thought and Human Communication.

Dr Paolini said Professor Clark's appointment continues their 14-year collaboration to improve cochlear implants. As a team, they employed sophisticated techniques to record from inside auditory brain cells, to understand how the cells talked to each other in response to sound.  

This information is helping develop new ways to improve hearing for cochlear implant users, he said.

La Trobe's new Graeme Clark Hearing and Neuroscience Unit will expand these techniques to include recordings from hundreds of brain cells simultaneously, and incorporate these advances in new biomaterials.

This next generation of implants will deliver a richer texture and more dynamic hearing experience, improving speech and music processing and providing a better awareness of the nuances of sound. 

A Companion of the Order of Australia and Fellow of the Royal Society of London, Professor Clark has been honoured world-wide for his work on the multiple-channel cochlear implant or bionic ear.

His was the first cochlear implant to reliably give speech understanding to severely-to-profoundly deaf people, leading to spoken language for children born deaf.

Over the past twenty years more than 120,000 cochlear implants have been performed in 100 countries world-wide, some 70 per cent with the Australian-developed bionic ear manufactured by Cochlear Limited. Patients to benefit from this procedure are aged between nine months and 90 years of age.

Dr Paolini is one of Australia's leading auditory neuroscientists, and has published extensively in the field of hearing sciences.

He said La Trobe's advanced hearing and auditory neuroscience laboratory carries out research to investigate how the brain responds to sound and how to reproduce this process using bionic devices. Its state-of-the-art stimulus recording equipment has been used for a range of major NHMRC and ARC funded research projects.

La Trobe University's neuroscience facility will also help to examine how deafness and sensory deficits affect brain development, especially for language. Professor Edith Bavin, a leader in her field, will play a central role in understanding how sensory input interacts with cognitive processes. This should also help deaf children achieve excellent speech and language.

See La Trobe University Graeme Clark Hearing and Neuroscience Unit factsheet, below.

The launch of the Graeme Clark Hearing and Neuroscience Unit follows the establishment at the University earlier this of the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre. Both will be components of a new multi-Faculty, multi-disciplinary research institute to be called, the Institute of Social Participation: Ageing Well, reflecting La Trobe University's distinctive commitment to path-breaking research that makes a difference to peoples lives.

Interviews and photo / film opportunities:

Professor Clark, Dr  Paolini and Professor Bavin will be available at 10 am, Wednesday 17 December, Room 259, Biological Sciences 2 Building, La Trobe University, Bundoora Campus, (Melway reference D5) to demonstrate aspects of their research in the quest for the hi-fi bionic ear.

For further information please contact Dr Tony Paolini, tel (03) 9479 2947, email, or Ernest Raetz, Media and Communications, tel 9479 2315.

Useful web links:
Staff profile: Dr Tony Paolini, School of Psychological Science
Research areas in the School of Human Communication Sciences
Professor Graeme Clark and the bionic ear - frequently asked questions

La Trobe University

Graeme Clark Hearing and Neuroscience Unit

Hearing loss represents a real financial cost to Australia of $11.75 billion per annum according to a new research study by Access Economics. The number of people affected by hearing loss is projected to increase to 1 in every 4 Australians by 2050. Hearing loss impacts on a persons opportunity to participate in education, employment and relationships. Interventions such as hearing aids and cochlear implants can enhance a persons ability to communicate. Research that improves hearing technology is required to address the projected increase in hearing loss. 

Projects lead by Associate Professor Tony Paolini, School of Psychological Science:

Hi-Fidelity Hearing
To examine whether a new generation high fidelity cochlear implant can present more discrete frequency information.   This study is investigating electrical stimulation of the cochlea using a sophisticated multi-channel implant.  The extent to which discrete frequency regions can be activated are considered important factors in the development of a new generation cochlear implant capable of delivery more complex sounds to provide better speech perception and music processing to implant users.

Developing Advanced Neural Auditory Implants
This project further develops the Auditory Brainstem Implant (ABI). The ABI is designed to provide sound information to profoundly deaf individuals who have peripheral hearing nerve damage which prevents the use of cochlear implants (CIs). However, the ABI in the most part has only had limited use, mainly providing awareness of environmental sounds rather than the perception of complex sounds such as speech.

Hearing and Neural Plasticity
This project uses state-of-the-art wireless neural recording and multichannel recording techniques. How the brain adapts and changes to behaviorally relevant stimuli will help examine how we become attentive to particular sounds within our environment. 

Project lead by Professor Edith Bavin, School of Psychological Science:

Psychology of Hearing
The focus of this research is language development and factors that influence it. Several projects are related to language impairment and cognitive developments (memory and attention).  In a project investigating the association between auditory perception, language development and memory we have developed sophisticated methods to test young childrens frequency discrimination (preschool and grade 1).  
Knowledge of the cognitive underpinnings of language and speech processing will lead to novel strategies to reduce the current variability in speech understanding abilities seen across cochlear implant patients. 
For example attention deficits and their subsequent impact on language development might be compensated for by novel stimulation strategies which may include slowing down speech elements.  These benefits may also translate into better strategies for sensory processing in autistic children. 
La Trobe University is well placed to conduct research in this area with the recently established Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre lead by Associate Professor, Cheryl Dissanayake.     




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