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This $1 hearing aid could treat millions with hearing loss

This $1 hearing aid could treat millions with hearing loss
Science
The new device is incredibly compelling, says Frank Lin, an ear, nose, and throat doctor at the Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University who was not involved in the work.

To regain their abilities, many seniors turn to hearing aids. Custom hearing aids amplify sound in the exact frequencies that the listener cannot hear. But at nearly $5000 a pair, these devices are practically a luxury item for many in low- and middle-income countries, says Bhamla, who specializes in frugal science at Georgia Institute of Technology. Lower grade hearing aids are cheaper, but they cant be customized, and they still cost up to $500. Theyre like cheap earphones in an airplane, Bhamla says.

Inspired by his grandparents and a hearing-impaired colleaguewho is first author on the new paperBhamla and his team set out to develop a cheap hearing aid built with off-the-shelf parts. They soldered a microphone onto a small circuit board to capture nearby sound and added an amplifier and a frequency filter to specifically increase the volume of high-pitch sounds above 1000 hertz. Then they added a volume control, an on/off switch, and an audio jack for plugging in standard earphones, as well as a battery holder. The device, dubbed LoCHAid, is the size of a matchbox and can be worn like a necklace. At bulk rates, Bhamla says, it would cost just under $1 to make. But anyone with the freely available blueprints and a soldering iron can make their own for not much moremaybe $15 or $20, Bhamla says. The parts are easy to source, he says, and putting them together takes less than 30 minutes .

Next, Bhamla and his colleagues tested the device. They found that it by 15 decibels while preserving volumes at lower pitches. It also filtered out interference and sudden, loud sounds like dog barks and car horns. Finally, tests with an artificial ear revealed that LoCHAid might improve speech recognition, by bringing conversations closer to the quality heard by healthy individuals. It complied with five out of six of the World Health Organizations preferred product recommendations for hearing aids, the researchers report today in

PLOS ONE

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Its simplicity has a few drawbacks, however. The device cant be fine-tuned for individual needs or adapted to treat other hearing issues. And even though its waterproof and shock resistant, the scientists anticipate that LoCHAids parts will wear out after about a year and a half. Its bulky size might deter some users, Bhamla says, although a smaller version is in the works.

But engineering is only half the battle. Until LoCHAid is clinically tested, it cannot be sold as a hearing aid in most countriesincluding the United States. Ultimately, Bhamla wants to get an approval to sell the device over the counter without a prescription, like ibuprofen or reading glasses. Its something were still figuring out, he says.

But if these cheap, colorful devices take off, they could benefit many people on the brink of cognitive decline, Lin says. Theoretically, if you treat hearing loss, you might modify those pathways and reduce the risk of dementia.

Bhamla wants biomedical devices to be as cheap and accessible as consumer electronics. He still remembers the shock of learning that he couldnt afford to help his grandparents. I thought owning a laptop and a cellphone meant I had the means to buy hearing aids, but then I realized how expensive they were, he recalls. It was sobering.
Read more on sciencemag.org
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