Improved hearing aid technology also benefits economy

October 15, 2009

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — New technology that dramatically improves the effectiveness of hearing aids stands to help millions of Americans suffering from hearing loss, says a University of Florida professor whose research helped to develop the product.

“The economic benefits of an advancement like this in a health care field are tremendous, particularly in a state like Florida where there are so many elderly and people with hearing impairments,” said Alice Holmes, a professor in UF’s Department of Communicative Disorders at the College of Public Health and Health Professions. “If you develop a hearing loss, you may end up having to retire early or go on disability. By keeping people functioning in society, it has all sort of positive outcomes.”

At the suggestion of one of Holmes’ patients at UF’s hearing clinic, who was severely hearing impaired, she and other UF researchers pioneered a way to program digital hearing aid devices and cochlear or inner ear implants, based on speech sounds such as “aba,” “ata” and “asha” instead of tonal beeps. People with hearing loss can now hear spoken words much more clearly and their hearing aid devices can be adjusted in a fraction of the time, Holmes said.

“I really think we have the possibility of revolutionizing how digital hearing devices can be programmed,” said Holmes, who collaborated with Rahul Shrivastav, another UF professor in communicative disorders, and Purvis Bedenbaugh, a former UF neuroscience professor. “Our next step is looking into the possibility of accomplishing the same thing with cell phones.”

After UF researchers received a patent, Lee Krause, Holmes’ patient whose training in computer engineering led him to propose the idea of using speech sounds, started the company Audigence Inc. in Melbourne to develop and market the software.

Audigence, which now has 12 employees, is licensing the technology to a hearing aid company in Orlando, Holmes said. “We’re hoping to have the product launched in October at the national meeting of the Academy of Dispensing Audiology in Clearwater,” she said.

In addition, a major clinical trial is now under way with an international hearing aid company that could result in another licensing agreement within the next year, she said.

The arrival of these products on the market will offer economic benefits to audiology clinics as well as improving the lives of their patients, Holmes said. By being able to program hearing aids quicker with better results, audiologists can see greater numbers of patients in a shorter period of time, she said.

An estimated 31 million Americans have hearing loss that could be helped by some form of amplification, yet only about 20 percent of them use hearing aids, Holmes said. Besides the stigma attached to hearing aids, many people who should wear them give up because they are adjusted incorrectly, she said.

“Hearing loss, particularly in the older population, is second only to arthritis as a permanent disability,” she said.

The problem with the traditional method for programming hearing aid devices is it relies on standardized formulas developed for the average patient, while the UF technology customizes the tuning to a patient’s individual hearing deficiencies, Holmes said. Hearing loss occurs at different pitches, which vary from one person to the next, she said.

Krause, chief executive officer and president of Audigence, had lost so much hearing that he needed a cochlear implant, an electrical device that is attached in one’s head and stimulates auditory nerves. Krause continued to have difficulty understanding human speech, especially on the phone, but that changed when it was programmed by speech sounds, Holmes said.

“We do conference calls probably every other day and he leads the calls,” she said. “I almost think he hears better than I do at times.”