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Hearing Impaired can now “Hear” with their Tongues

shutterstock_145251097Instead of taking the words right about of your mouth, scientists have figured out a way to put words right into your mouth. Well, kind of. Scientists have developed a retainer-type device that could allow people to “hear” by using their tongues.

The two part system pairs a Bluetooth-enabled microphone earpiece with the tongue device in order to strengthen the wearer’s ability to recognize words. No, there’s not some new nerve link found between the tongue and ear. Instead, the earpiece works to rewire the brain to interpret certain tongue sensations as words. The research team likens the sensation to what pop rocks or even champagne bubbles feel like.

How it works is sounds enter through the earpiece’s microphone that is then encoded into separate words by the earpiece converter. Those codes are sent via Bluetooth to the retainer placed on the tongue, which conveys the wavelengths through distinct patters of somatic nerves. The tongue was chosen because of its hypersensitivity to touch, so it’s capable of distinguishing between the slight differences in the different sensations being sent to it.

Braille works in a somewhat similar way for the visually impaired. With enough practice, the nerves in their fingers are rewired in the brain to recognize certain touch sensations as words. With further research, the same idea of the tongue receptors could be used in cases of people who have lost their sense of touch. If the receptors were put in prosthetic limbs, a person could feel through their tongue when they’ve made contact with an object.

The contraption looks a little silly now, with wires and such falling out of your mouth. And everyone remembers how even though the orthodontist made you promise to wear your retainer every night, none of us ever did. So we’ll see if they can downsize the device to something more practical. If they can, the estimated $2,000 dollar cost will be a welcome alternative to the surgery and $40,000 price tag of a cochlear implant.