Infrared technology could light the way to improving hearing devices and heart conditions

By Nikki Bruce - 28 Mar 2011 17:20:0 GMT
Infrared technology could light the way to improving hearing devices and heart conditions

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Lee Siegel.

A recent discovery may pave the way for new infrared technology which will assist with cochlear implants used for deafness and hopefully will generate a range of new devices which can be used to treat disorders such as Parkinson's disease and other visual and balance related conditions.

The discovery was made by a team of scientists at the University of Utah and was funded by the National Institutes of Health, there are hopes that it could prove to be revolutionary in this field. The scientists found that short pulses of infrared laser light can activate both heart cells and inner ear cells.

This was tested on newborn rat heart muscle cells (cardiomyocytes) and the inner-ear hair cells of toadfish which were taken from the organ that detects motion of the head. The toadfish are oyster toadfish which have long been used as a comparison for human inner-ears and balance research.

The research shows that infrared light is more effective than electrical pulses, which are currently used by many devices such as cardiac pacemakers and cochlear implants. The infrared light uses a shorter wave length which has as its primary target the inner-ear hair cells' mitochondria, which are the parts of the cells that are responsible for producing energy. The infrared light stimulates the mitochondria which in turn affects the flow of calcium ions through them, making the cells contract and release neurotransmitter. This is a natural process already but the radiation from the infrared allows the scientists to control it. In the case of the inner-ear cells they are able to manipulate the signals sent to the brain and with the heart they are able to control the contraction of the cells.

The new findings could help to significantly update existing cochlear implants especially. The infrared method could enable users to hear a far greater range of frequencies than currently provided for by the implant. Those working on the project are optimistic that it could allow a possibility of hearing thousands of frequencies as opposed to the eight offered by the technology used presently. This could mean that a deaf persons hearing could be returned to an almost normal level, allowing them to enjoy the pleasures of listening to music once again.

This research is only in the very first stages however and it could take anything between five and ten years for any new devices to be released. The infrared technology needs to be honed to make it more practical and effective if it is to be fitted into cochlear implants.

There are other proposed uses for infrared laser light in regards to visual and balance based conditions which are currently treated using electrical deep-brain stimulation. It is thought that infrared light could make the treatments better by prolonging the amount of time that they are effective.

There are also suggestions that it could also help with optical stimulation too.