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Invisible hearing aid changing lives

July 13, 2009 6:41:20 PM PDT
A Bay Area researcher who helped bring sound to the deaf, believes his new device will change the lives of millions of hearing-impaired people. It's called the Lyric, a completely invisible hearing aid.

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Retired San Francisco attorney Alan Zimmerman is having his hearing checked, and every click of his thumb tells doctors what he already knows. He is now hearing faint sounds that would have escaped him just months ago.

"All of a sudden you can hear the refrigerator humming, or you'll be in a room and you'll hear the ticking of a clock," says Zimmerman.

The difference is a device hidden deep in his ear. Billed as the world's smallest hearing aid, the Lyric became available nationally earlier this year. It is the creation of Dr. Robert Schindler, the former UCSF researcher who helped develop the cochlear implant to restore hearing to the clinically deaf.

"This is that kind of revolution," says Schindler. "In a way it's like a contact lens for the ear."

The device's size allows it to be placed much closer to the eardrum. That closer proximity lowers the amount of sound the Lyric needs to produce for normal hearing.

"With that you pick up an enormous efficiency, so we get about 12 to 15 decibels of gain. What that tells us is it allows us to make circuitry work on very low currents," he says.

The result is a battery-operated system that allows it to stay implanted in the ear canal for up to four months without being changed. Schindler says the deeper placement also eliminates a kind of inner ear vibration, known as occlusion, common with most hearing aids.

"The Lyric sounds natural, and it's the only hearing aid that does sound natural and it's because of where it's positioned in the ear canal," he says.

Critics point out the miniaturized device also has its disadvantages. A technician is required to remove, replace the batteries, and then reinsert the Lyric.

However, for Zimmerman, the invisibility and improved sound quality have been worth the extra trips to the clinic for maintenance every few months.

"Ii walk my dogs at Crissy Field and I can hear people talking as they're coming to me. I can hear traffic... people going towards the bridge which is a quarter of a mile away," says Zimmerman. "So for sure, I am much more aware of sound."

The Lyric also differs from standard hearing aids in another way. Rather than purchasing the device, the patient purchases a kind of lease contract, which runs a little over $1,500 a year. As of now, it is also not covered by insurance.

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