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ARRA Investments in Assistive Communication Technology

Public Health Burden
Assistive technologies (AT) promote independence by enabling people to perform tasks that they were formerly unable to accomplish, or had great difficulty accomplishing. The NIH conducts and supports research to develop devices or interventions that improve or restore communication abilities, including hearing aids, cochlear and brainstem implants, and computer programs that help individuals with speech and language disorders.

Hearing Aids
Although hearing aid technology has advanced rapidly over the past few decades, hearing aids are not particularly effective in certain listening environments, such as competing speakers or loud background noise. To meet these needs, ARRA investments will support researchers working on directional hearing aids, processing software, and other hearing aid technologies that will help users understand speech from specific sources within a noisy environment.
  • A hearing aid that achieves second-order directional sensitivity can attenuate some unwanted sounds that interfere with speech. Existing technologies attempt this attenuation by processing signals from three nondirectional microphones, however they are hampered by problems with self-noise, microphone mismatches, and size. To overcome these difficulties, this ARRA supported project will develop and then test a miniature second-order directional microphone that can be incorporated into hearing aids.1
  • A Challenge Grant project will develop a new signal processing strategy, called Contrast Enhancement (CE) algorithm, to sharpen contrast in hearing aid speech signals, thereby improving speech understanding in individuals with a wide range of different hearing losses.2
  • A phase II SBIR project is developing a new photonic hearing aid that will work better in noisy situations than existing hearing aids on the market. The new design has the potential for improved comfort, longer battery life, more robust operation, and a wider ear canal opening. ARRA supplemental funds will be used to hire additional researchers and purchase equipment to accelerate the pace of development.3
Cochlear Implants
A cochlear implant (CI) is a small, complex electronic device that can restore the perception of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard-of-hearing. However, many CI users still experience difficulty processing speech in noisy environments, and significant auditory retraining is necessary following implantation. Researchers are working to address both of these barriers.
  • One ARRA-supported project seeks to improve the processing of interaural time differences (ITD) by users of bilateral cochlear implants to achieve better sound localization and speech reception in noise. Recent findings indicate that introducing “jittered” CI signals (electrical pulse trains with random interpulse intervals instead of consistent interpulse intervals) improves ITD discrimination performance in individuals with implants in both ears. The ARRA supplement supports an additional postdoctoral fellow to characterize the effects of jitter on ITD sensitivity, potentially leading to better bilateral CI processors.4
  • ARRA investment will allow the expansion of another ongoing project to determine if remote/distance technology can be utilized to obtain accurate CI performance data from users, rather than in-person testing. Once validated, CI recipients in rural and under-served areas would have improved access to participate in CI research and receive clinical services via remote/distance technology without incurring the burdens associated with long-distance travel to a CI center.5
  • Research has shown that auditory training can improve CI users’ speech and music perception, even after many years of experience with their device. ARRA support is allowing the translation of a computer-based auditory training program to an internet platform, facilitating improved access to training programs, and improving communication between CI users, clinicians and researchers.6
Brain-Computer Interface
A brain-computer interface (BCI) allows individuals with movement disorders to interact more easily with the environment and with the people around them. A BCI reads the user’s “thoughts” by recording electrical brain activity. It then decodes the activity to control an external device, such as a computer or prosthetic limb.
  • An ARRA Signature Project will support research and subject testing to develop a BCI for communication. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and brainstem stroke are two devastating disorders in which control of voluntary movements is lost while other functions such as cognition and sensation remain. The BCI system could restore such affected individuals’ ability to communicate, typing words on a computer screen just by imagining the movement of their own hand to do so.7

  1. 1R01DC009859-01S1 -- Development of a miniature second-order directional microphone diaphragm for hearing aids -- Miles, Ronald N (Contact); Twigg, Christopher (NY)
  2. 1RC1DC010601-01 -- Contrast Enhancement to Improve Speech Recognition with Hearing Devices -- Kluender, Keith R (WI)
  3. 3R44DC008499-03S1 -- Wide-bandwidth open canal hearing aid for better multitalker speech understanding -- Puria, Sunil (CA)
  4. 3R01DC005775-06A1S1 -- Bilateral cochlear implants: Physiology and psychophysics -- Delgutte, Bertrand (MA)
  5. 3R01DC009595-01A1S1 -- Physiology as a Potential Predictor of Perception in Cochlear Implants -- Hughes, Michelle L (NE)
  6. 3R01DC004792-07S1 -- Effects of Training on Adult Cochlear Implant Users -- Fu, Qian-Jie (CA)
  7. 1R01DC009899-01 -- Restoring Communication with and Intracortical Neural Interface System -- Hochberg, Leigh R (MA)

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