New ear research to help disabled

By Peter Kim

University researchers are currently developing technology for the disabled that help the deaf hear and give full mobility to the handicapped.

Andrea Trevino, graduate student, is working to develop bionic ears, devices that act as replacement ears for the deaf. Cyrus Omar, graduate of Engineering and LAS, is working to develop brain computer interfaces, devices that allow users to control mechanical arms and legs with only their mind.

Both work under Todd Coleman, professor of Engineering and neuroscience, and have won graduate fellowships from the National Science Foundation.

“We’re really trying to understand the neuroscience to help disabled people,” Coleman said.

Although bionic ears have been around for some time, Trevino is working to improve the quality of the bionic ear. Currently, users of bionic ears have trouble hearing different musical tones and inflections in voices.

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“When I say the word, ‘what.’ Or I (ask the question), ‘what?’, you hear a different inflection in my voice,” Trevino said. “People with bionic hears might not hear that difference.”

That shortcoming causes serious problems for speakers of some languages, Trevino said. Chinese, for example, is a language based on different tones and inflections.

Bionic ear users also suffer from the “cocktail party” problem. If there are several conversations going on at once, like at a “cocktail party,” someone with a bionic ear might have trouble focusing on one conversation.

Trevino is using statistical models to eliminate these problems. Once better models are produced, bionic ears will be able to more accurately interpret sounds like a real human ear.

Meanwhile, Omar’s work on brain computer interface is helping disabled people to communicate and move.

“Brain computer interface is for people who are disabled,” Coleman said. “The idea is that the wiring from the brain to the body might’ve been cut because of stroke or other things, but all the processes are still in tact.”

A brain computer interface picks up the electrical signals generated by brain. It does this externally through a cap, lined with electrodes that is placed over a user’s head.

The cap picks up the small voltages that the brain generates and then processes these into a computer.

“Brain computer interfaces could be used in communications,” Omar said.

“A patient (who cannot speak or move) could use it to let caretakers know what they need. For example, if they’re hungry or in pain.”

It could also be used for mobility. A handicapped person could control a motorized wheelchair by just thinking about where they want to go.

Fully controllable prosthetic limbs is another possibility. Amputees and people born without limbs could get prosthetic arms and legs that function exactly like real ones.

While the main focus is the disabled, brain computer interfaces also have applications in other fields such as the military.

“When flying an airplane, you need two hands on the controls. But say you need to bring up a map, for example. (A brain computer interface) would allow you to do that by just thinking about it,” Omar said.

Brain computer interfaces have far-reaching capabilities but their power is still limited.

“It can’t pick up complex things like words,” Omar said. “Only very simple things like bodily movement.”