Towards the ‘hi-fi’ bionic ear
Thirty years ago, the world’s first two cochlear implant recipients began their highly publicised journey from deafness towards hearing.
And the man who made possible what many people said could not be done appeared on stage in Sydney to explain this controversial breakthrough to leaders in science, medicine and engineering.
Next week, Professor Graeme Clark AC, now Distinguished Professor at La Trobe University, mounts that stage again. This time he will give the opening plenary address when the triennial International Congress on Acoustics returns to Sydney, from 23 to 27 August.
However, today there are about 200,000 cochlear implantees world-wide – some 5,000 in Australia – and there is government support for hearing issues with plans for a new national screening program for deafness.
Summarising the three decades, Professor Clark says research has now well and truly established the clinical value of electrical stimulation of the central auditory pathways to achieve hearing and speech understanding in deaf adults and children.
‘The speech processing strategy we use is very effective, especially for young deaf children diagnosed under 12 months of age. With good education they can achieve near normal spoken language.
‘At the same time we have achieved an essential understanding of brain coding and its relation to perception and the conscious experience of sound.
‘This has led to a new and successful field of medical prosthetic devices developed by Cochlear and other companies.
‘Finally, it has created a new medical field in neuroprosthetics, not only for the bionic ear, but more generally in what I describe as medical bionics.’
The research directions to achieve high fidelity sound for hearing in noise and appreciating music – which will be the next major step forward – are now more clearly defined, says Professor Clark.
La Trobe University’s Graeme Clark Centre, located in the School of Psychological Science, conducts research in the quest for this next-generation hi-fi bionic ear.
The work is led by Associate Professor Tony Paolini and other colleagues dealing with medical physics, microelectronics, hearing, speech and language.
The bionic ear has its origins in electrophysiological research by Professor Clark at the University of Sydney. It was then developed at the University of Melbourne from 1970 with the first implant performed by Professor Clark at Melbourne’s Eye and Ear Hospital in 1978.
‘When I commenced my research in 1967 most scientists said that the use of electrical stimulation to relieve severe deafness was nearly impossible.
‘However, in science I consider that it is more important to examine why an outcome can occur,’ says Professor Clark, ‘rather than why it cannot.’
The 20th International Congress on Acoustics will be held at the Sydney Convention Centre.
Professor Clark can be contacted on Tel: 03 9479 1868 / 044 880 7201 or Email: Graeme.Clark@latrobe.edu.au