Developments to Watch
A BIONIC BREAKTHROUGH FOR THE DEAF
DOCTORS AFFILIATED WITH the University of Melbourne recently grabbed headlines in Australia by implanting a new form of bionic hearing aid in the brain of a woman who had been deaf for a decade. She now hears some sounds via a small pad of electrodes attached to the part of the brain that receives signals from the ear.
That technology, called an auditory brain-stem implant, was developed at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles. With little fanfare, doctors in the U.S. have recently implanted 10 of the devices in patients, as part of a clinical trial that could lead to commercial products by 1998. The procedure is no panacea for deafness. It will cost $25,000 and be available only to patients who have tumors on both auditory nerves.
Still, the rapid progress in electronic brain implants offers hope for repairing other nervous-system defects. Research funded by the House Ear Institute and Cochlear Corp. in Englewood, Colo., has already enabled a paraplegic in Maine to stand on his own feet. Case Western Reserve University hopes to restore some hand functions in quadraplegics. And researchers in the field think they will one day be able to give sight to the blind.EDITED BY NEIL GROSS