Technology for the deaf

The Australian company Cochlear, a global leader in implantable hearing solutions, collaborates closely with several partners in the Leuven region. KU Leuven and imec, together with the spin-off companies Easics, ICsense and AnSem, and the multinational company NXP Semiconductors have all contributed to refining cochlear implants. KU Leuven and Cochlear have partnered for more than ten years.

Cochlear develops hearing implants that use electrical stimulation, known as cochlear implants (CIs), which consist of two parts: a surgically implanted component that electrically stimulates the auditory nerve, and a speech processor worn externally that receives the sound and converts it into a pulsed electrical code. This code is sent through a wireless radio frequency (RF) connection to the internal implant, which then stimulates the auditory nerve.

Using a CI, profoundly deaf people can perceive sounds and can even understand speech under favourable conditions. At KU Leuven, Professor Jan Wouters of the Division of Experimental Otorhinolaryngology and Professor Marc Moonen of the STADIUS Division of the KU Leuven Department of Electrical Engineering are working with Cochlear to improve the performance of CIs. Specifically, the research is focused on developing software to process auditory signals in order to filter out noise so that CI users can perceive speech and music more easily. 70% of all CIs worldwide are equipped with an algorithm that is developed at KU Leuven.

NXP Semiconductors, whose Personal Health division is headquartered in Leuven, develops and manufactures powerful, low-energy logic chips for cochlear implants, allowing for smaller batteries and less visible speech processors. Cochlear Australia and ICsense have developed circuits that stimulate the auditory nerve. Easics has reduced the energy consumption of the speech processor by dividing functionalities into several smaller tasks that are only activated when necessary. Imec,together with Cochlear, has optimised the layout of the chip and manufactures both the prototypes of the chip and the end product. AnSem develops circuits that control the electrical charge inside cochlear implants. Taken together, these innovations all contribute to the next generation of refined cochlear implants. Over 250,000 people have gained hearing thanks to cochlear implants.