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October 12, 2003

BU receives $6.5M to improve hearing aid quality

From: Ithaca Journal, NY - Oct 12, 2003

Gannett News Service

VESTAL -- Binghamton University has won a $6.5 million federal research grant to improve the quality of hearing aids -- a project based in part on Cornell University research on a parasitic fly.

On a per-year basis, it's the largest research grant Binghamton University has ever received.

Ron Miles, a BU professor of mechanical engineering, is leading a study that will design sensors for directional hearing aids. The improved microphone will help the hearing-impaired to distinguish sounds in a noisy environment, he said.

"The vast, vast majority of people who are hearing-impaired have great difficulty when they get into a noisy place," Miles said. "This will lead to a significant improvement in the ability of the hearing-impaired to understand speech. It helps filter out unwanted noises."

The four-year, $6.5 million award from the National Institutes of Health will fund the research, much of which will occur at the BU campus.

Miles said the grant for the project called "Sensing and Processing for Directional Hearing Aids" will support three full-time engineers and perhaps six graduate students at BU. The research team will design, fabricate and analyze the directional microphone technology.

The funding comes specifically from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. At about $1.63 million a year, the grant is BU's largest ever, said Gail Glover, a university spokeswoman. Recent grants that fund BU's Center for Advanced Technology and public archaeology facility are about $1 million each annually, she said.

At least 26 million people in the United States suffer from hearing problems, according to the support organization Self Help for Hard of Hearing People.

Consumer demand for directional microphones has grown sharply since researchers recently proved that they do reduce background noise in problem areas, including restaurants, said Philip Odessky, operations manager and certified hearing aid fitter at Audibel Hearing Care Center in Vestal.

"The response on the new directional mics is significantly better, but they're not ideal," Odessky said. "It's still a really new science. Any development of something that will reduce the extraneous noises is a wonderful thing."

Bonnie Tomecek, 56, of Binghamton has used a hearing aid with directional microphones since September. She suffers from sensory neural damage and said the hearing aid has helped, especially in situations where she can change channels to filter out background noise. But it's not optimal, she said.

In her work as a special education aide at Vestal Middle School, Tomecek faces a lot of background noise that makes it difficult to hear what people close by are saying.

"In a classroom situation when there are a lot of children and a lot of superfluous noise -- pens clicking, papers shuffling, children wiggling in seats -- it's hard to listen to a teacher or work one-on-one with students," she said.

Miles' research may make such situations easier for people like Tomecek.

Other experts and facilities participating in Miles' project are at Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Illinois and Cornell University, Miles said. Hearing-aid maker Phonak Group of Switzerland and Knowles Electronics Inc., an Illinois-based maker of hearing-air microphones, also are involved.

Human testing of the equipment is not yet included in the grant-funded research, Miles said.

Cornell Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior Ronald Hoy has studied the fly, which is a parasite of crickets, for 12 years and has studied insect hearing systems for 30 years. He is a biology consultant for Miles' project. He said that the fly has evolved an ear that is unique in the animal kingdom.

"No animal senses direction the way the fly does," he said. Hoy said that Miles will be using Cornell's nano-fabrication facilities in order to create an artificial membrane out of silicon that is one-millimeter in size.

"The idea is to make a small silicon chip that responds to sound the way that the fly does," he said.

Miles will be doing much of the work at Cornell, Hoy said, because Binghamton doesn't have the facilities and Cornell's nano-fabrication lab is one of the best in the country.

Journal reporter Jarrett McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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