Thursday, April 07, 2005

Cochlear Implants

The Physics colloquium here at Syracuse this week was by Ian Shipsey from Purdue University. Ian is a high energy experimentalist who used to be a postdoc at Syracuse well before I came here. His colloquium was an extremely unusual one, titled “Bringing Hearing to the Deaf - Cochlear Implants: A Technical and Personal Account".

In 1989, Ian lost his hearing as a result of intensive antibiotic treatment to protect his immune system after chemotherapy to cure him of Leukemia. He recently received a cochlear implant, which is a remarkable piece of science and technology that can restore neural function to the ear and allowed him to hear for the first time in fifteen years. Between becoming deaf and receiving the cochlear implant Ian and his wife (Daniela Bortoletto, another physicist and a former Syracuse graduate student) had a daughter and, until two years ago, Ian had never heard her voice. Now all that has changed.

Ian discussed in great detail the physics behind the working of the ear and it was truly fascinating. The combination of the passive way in which sound is transferred between the various components of the ear and the active way in which it is amplified through tiny electrochemical motors is a bioengineering marvel. I knew very little of all this and came away significantly educated about the physics and in awe of the tremendous amount of work that has been performed to elucidate the details he discussed.

The second half of Ian's colloquium was about how cochlear implants function. He described their history, the electrical engineering and psychophysics involved, and the clinical evaluation of their performance. He also discussed his personal experience in getting and using his own cochlear implant, as well as making some comments regarding the social implications of implantation.

Ian gave a similar talk at Fermilab lat year, and you can download the slides or watch the video of that talk. I encourage you to do so if you have time; it is a fascinating description of the physics of the human body.
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