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Lasers let deaf ears pick up what the sonic world is putting down

Michael Gorman, @Numeson
March 31, 2011
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Not going to front: we've a soft spot in our heart for focused beams of light. We've seen 'em rid the world of its space junk and set the pace of human hearts, and now, they're taking a leading role in aural advancement. As improbable as it sounds, a research team from the University of Utah led by Richard Rabbitt has found that lasers may be able to give deaf people the ability to hear. Using a low-power infrared diode -- similar to those in laser-pointers tormenting cats the world over -- Professor Rabbitt found that exposing oyster toadfish hair cells (analogous to the cells found in humans' inner ears) to infrared light caused them to release neurotransmitters and activate adjacent neurons. This could lead to laser-based ear implants able to stimulate focused areas of cells with thousands of sound wavelengths, as opposed to today's electrode implants whose electrical current spreads through human tissue and limits the deliverable sonic range. Smaller, more efficient power supplies and light sources are needed before optical hearing aids become a reality, but if these newfangled lasers ever get their act together, we should be able to hear version two (and three) coming down the pike.

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