The scary future for cochlear implants?

26 05 2010

Dr Mark Gasson from the University of Reading has been infected with a computer virus. This has possible implications for cochlear implants as they develop in the future, should the future involve wireless technology. Further details on the story are here are at BBC News: ‘First human infected with computer virus’.

A fully internal cochlear implant has been patented by Advanced Bionics so we may see some exciting developments there.

In 2006, a deaf woman replaced her conventional processor with a fully implantable cochlear implant (though it was not implanted) and she was able to understand speech easily and well. This implantable cochlear implant was developed by Rahul Sarpeshkar, an associate professor in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he heads the Analog VLSI and Biological Systems lab. This redesigned implant bypasses the DSP (digital signal processing) and thus reduces the need for a large power supply. For an in-depth description of the bionic ear, see “An Ultra-Low-Power Programmable Analog Bionic Ear Processor,” by Rahul Sarpeshkar et al., IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, April 2005, pp. 711-727.

I know people who are having (rare) problems with their cochlear implants – low level functioning, site infection, internal device breakdown, wound re-opening – and consider myself lucky to have had a smooth recovery from my implantation.  I’m really not particularly keen on exposing myself to the possibility of something going wrong with a fully implantable device with a greater level of difficulty of ‘fixing it’. How will they carry out upgrades – by using wireless technology? This could be a dark and dangerous road to travel.