About 50,000 people every year in the U.S. are diagnosed with single sided deafness – a significant or complete loss of hearing in one ear. Currently, the best remedy for this affliction involves surgically implanting a titanium post into the base of the skull (ouch), but Amir Abolfathi, former vice president of R&D for Invisalign, wants to change that with his new invention, the SoundBite – a snap-in hearing aid that utilizes the sound conductive properties of bone to channel sound from the wearer’s teeth through the bones in their head and to their ear. In clinical trials, most patients reported that it restored from 80 to 100 percent of their hearing and that they hardly noticed they were wearing this little example of remarkable design for health.
Unlike the bone-anchored hearing aid (BAHA), which is currently the most recommended option on the market for single side deafness, the acrylic SoundBite snaps right onto the user’s molars. Using a mini microphone worn in the deaf ear, incoming sound is wirelessly beamed to an electronic receiver in the molar insert, which transmits sound waves from the teeth through the bones in the jaw right to the cochlea (the part of the ear that processes sound).
Abolfathi came up with the idea for the SoundBite while sitting in traffic one day. After consulting with a otolaryngologist friend, he set to work on the biggest challenge in the design – miniaturization. After considering the options, he decided to use a piezoelectric actuator which needs very little power to generate the vibrations that travel through bone. Using the piezoelectric actuator allowed him to use a much smaller battery, making the entire insert compact enough to fit comfortably in the mouth.
The device is anticipated to obtain FDA approval and if it does, it will hit the market this summer for about $6,000 (compare that to surgery for a BAHA, which can run well over $10,000.) Sonitus Medical, Abolfathi’s company, plans to negotiate with insurance providers to reimburse patients for at least part of the cost. Other applications for the technology, including wireless, water-safe MP3 players and stealth communication for intelligence personnel, are also being considered.