Sound approach helps babies with hearing loss

Infants with hearing impairment can struggle to learn language and engage fully with the world around them. But a new clinical tool – EarGenie™ – promises to give them a head start soon after birth.

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General public

Quick action is the key

Professor Colette McKay is the Principal Scientist and leads the Translational Hearing Research program at the Bionics Institute. She also holds honorary fellowships at the University of Melbourne.

Professor McKay has developed a clinical system – EarGenie™ – to carry out diagnostic hearing evaluations in babies. This product has received $891,500 from the MRFF, which will help turn it into a business venture.

‘If a baby has hearing loss, the earlier it’s detected, the better. Language development is the most important thing for quality of life,’ Professor McKay says.

‘Australia has universal newborn hearing screening. But the screening process just tells you if the baby has a problem or not.’

Currently, audiology clinics can get a relatively accurate idea of hearing levels using electrophysiology or auditory brainstem response (ABR).

‘There’s still some uncertainty, which makes hearing aid programming difficult to get right,’ Professor McKay explains.

‘There is also a spanner in the works in that ABR does not work in 10% of these babies. They have a condition called auditory neuropathy, so we cannot know how much they can hear. There is also no current clinically available objective test for discrimination of sounds.

Our research has shown that EarGenie™ can solve both of these clinical problems.’

The EarGenie system

Babies who fail the screening get detailed testing at a specialist paediatric audiology clinic, where EarGenie™ can provide accurate details. The EarGenie™ system combines electrophysiology and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). The latter is a neuroimaging technique that uses light to detect brain activity.

During testing, the infant wears a cap. It has electrodes and light sources to show the brain’s responses to sounds.

‘It really excites us, and it excites clinicians,’ Professor McKay says.

‘We can also use EarGenie™ to see how well babies can distinguish speech sounds at birth. That is a really cool thing, and really important to know for babies with auditory neuropathy.’

Armed with this information, clinicians can tailor hearing devices to suit the individual baby’s needs. They can also adjust treatments and therapies over time.

Taking the system to the world

Professor McKay first became interested in fNIRS while leading a team in Manchester in the United Kingdom. ‘I thought “Wouldn’t it be really great to evaluate babies’ hearing with this technology?”’

‘Now we’re set up and ready to clinically test it,’ Professor McKay says. ‘We’re at the stage where we’re ready to go out and speak to commercial partners.’

A multidisciplinary Bionics Institute team supports the initiative, ranging from software and systems engineers to data scientists and audiologists.

‘It’s not really possible to do this without such a team,’ Professor McKay acknowledges. ‘We’re in the right place, with the right team.’

Professor McKay argues for the economic benefits of a clinical system that aims to enable better language in those with hearing loss. She cites how cochlear implants have saved governments money.

‘This is not just research that doesn’t go anywhere,’ she says.

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