Glasses and hearing aids have improved the eyesight and hearing of millions of people around the world, but what happens when these senses are rendered almost totally ineffective? Researchers are striving to develop devices that help to alleviate injuries affecting the human senses and to overcome their own limitations.
Examples of this sensory innovation include hearing aids than can synchronize with other electronic devices, artificial noses and bionic eyes. Nowadays, technology is providing solutions for many whose only options used to be silence and darkness.
Connected with hearing aids
Although today no device is capable of restoring lost hearing 100%, there are tools that can significantly improve hearing ability, even in a noisy environment. “The biggest innovations we’ve seen lately, in addition to improvements in the way the hearing aids help provide better speech understanding in noise, are the devices’ ability to integrate with the wearers’ world of technology,” says Brande Plotnick, director editorial of the Healthy Hearing portal, to OpenMind.
An example is the Oticon Opn hearing aid, which connects to an iPhone or a smart TV and works like a set of earphones. Thus one can talk on the phone, listen to music or watch a TV show wirelessly. It also allows users to activate the heating or any home automation service, when connecting to the Internet through the IFTTT network. “We expect continued progress with hearing aids’ ability to connect to wearers’ auxiliary technology that they use every day,” says Plotnick.
Artificial noses that detect odours
When food begins to rot, its repulsive smell comes from a compound called cadaverine. A team of scientists has developed an artificial nose that identifies these odours even before our olfactory sense is able to detect them. Tai Hyun Park, a professor at the School of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the National University of Seoul (South Korea) and one of the creators of the device, tells OpenMind that “It is a kind of biosensor which mimics the human nose.”
According to the researcher, the artificial nose could help people with problems identifying odours, although for the moment they have been limited to the recognition of cadaverine by the biosensor. E. coli bacteria were used as a host to insert the receptor that recognizes the substance. The bacteria were assembled onto nanodiscs that, within a carbon nanotube-based transistor, formed the artificial nose. The authors suggest that the tool can be used to locate corpses buried after natural disasters, since the noxious-smelling compound is also secreted when a person dies.
Artificial intelligence and bionic eyes
Bionic technology has allowed a Russian woman with visual impairment since childhood, who completely lost her sight in 2004, to partially recover her vision. According to Russia Beyond, the patient, aged 50, has been implanted with a chip in the macula (the central area of the retina). With some eyeglasses equipped with a camera, a receiver processes the images it captures and converts them so that they reach the eye implant.
The bionic eye, developed in the United States, has already been tested in a dozen patients with vision losses. Without the need for surgery, other devices take advantage of artificial intelligence so that people without vision are able to “see” what is around them. In this way, a smart camera mounted on special glasses allows the user to read texts or identify faces. With the help of a small headset, the technology processes the information captured by the camera and converts it into audio, which is transmitted to the ears of the visually impaired person.
Like a second skin
When a person wears a prosthesis because they have had a limb amputated, they lose sensitivity in that area. But this could change thanks to an artificial skin developed by researchers from the California Institute of Technology (USA) and the Federal Polytechnic School of Zurich (Switzerland).
The tissue, made with a thin, transparent film of pectin and water, detects temperature changes in the range between 5 and 50 degrees Celsius. The researchers, whose article is published in Science Robotics, suggest that this skin can also be placed on the bandages so that doctors know if the patient’s temperature is increasing due to an infection in the wound. Another way to prevent greater problems is the second skin designed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (USA), designed to protect the military from biological and chemical attacks. Located on the clothes, the membrane of carbon nanotubes has been shown to be effective in repelling the dengue virus.
Movable tongue for oral cancer sufferers
Some patients with oral cancer may lose the ability to speak due to the damage caused by tumours in the tongue. A team of dentists from the University of Okayama (Japan) has developed a movable tongue prosthesis aimed at these people, according to a report in The Japan Times. The device is made with resin and connected to the back teeth with a cord. Its advantage over other prostheses is that it can move up and down.
Along with these tools, there are also artificial tongues that can measure and compare flavours. Equipped with sensors, the devices are able to identify organic and inorganic compounds with a precision that even surpasses human sensitivity. These laboratory tongues are widely used in the food and beverage industry.