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Hear hear! How Mac researchers developed a leading-edge hearing technology

The research undertaken by McMaster's Intelligent Hearing Aid Group has been brought to market by VitaSound Audio Inc.
Hear hear! How Mac researchers developed a leading-edge hearing technology

Sue Becker holds VitaSound's Neuro-compensator device

Few people appreciate the richness and precision of sound more than lovers of classical music. So, when a music-aficionado and musician, even an amateur one, loses his ability to clearly distinguish timbre and harmonics, he has lost a vital part of his world.

Henry Becker knows about that loss. The 83-year-old former chemical engineering professor has suffered hearing deterioration as he aged – aggravated by a flight more than a decade ago in an unpressurized plane in Costa Rica. Gone was the joy of hearing clearly the harmonics of violin strings streaming from speakers that once belonged, he says, to pianist Glenn Gould. Perhaps worse, he couldn't play his own violin with assurance.

 “I quickly noticed there was something missing from my speakers (after the trip) when I played my music. It seemed the high frequencies weren't coming through quite properly. . . . It made me quite unhappy because music is quite a part of my life.”

Which brings us to his daughter, Sue. She's a professor in the department of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour. And it is her role, and that of other McMaster colleagues, in the creation of an innovative new hearing-aid technology that has restored much of the world taken from her father, the emeritus professor at Queen's University in Kingston.

 After trying another hearing aid several years ago, with indifferent success, Henry Becker now wears a unit developed by VitaSound Audio, based at McMaster Innovation Park. With that unit, he says, “the music comes across beautifully. It's like it used to be. I'd recommend it to anyone except maybe those with profound hearing loss – I can't really comment on that.”

 Now, after undergoing field trials – and dealing with audiologists and ear, nose, and throat specialists – VitaSound is selling its hearing aids, among other things, using retail channels at the Walgreens pharmacy chain in the U.S. and in Walmart stores in Canada. By the end of next year, said president Gora Ganguli, the company hopes to have 450 locations south of the border and 75 in Canada.

“Without overstating it, the evidence we have today clearly demonstrates this is the best hearing technology in the market,” said Ganguli, also chief executive of the private company. “We're actually very happy this is a Canadian story, right from research to commercialization.”

The research story at McMaster goes back at least a decade as Sue Becker worked with colleagues Laurel Trainor, Ron Racine and John Platt in the psychology department, as well as Simon Haykin and Ian Bruce, in electrical and computer engineering. They formed the Intelligent Hearing Aid group. The group was interested in hearing loss, in brain plasticity, and in the brain's ability to relearn how to hear in cases of impairment, such as is caused by nerve damage or damage to receptor-transmitter hair cells in the inner and outer ear.

“We were kind of brainstorming something we could all work on together,” says Becker, “something we hoped would have a benefit (for society). . . . We just all saw it (coming out with a new hearing-aid technology) as an area where there was huge room for improvement.”

Hearing-aid technology is complex. Such terms as speech-enhancement algorithms and digital loudness control are stock-in-trade phrases. One predominant technology is wide dynamic range compression (WDRC), wherein the hearing aid provides different degrees of amplification, depending upon the loudness of the sound.

The McMaster group thought they had a better idea. Their Neuro-compensator technology starts with a computerized model of the human ear structure. In effect, it tries to predict how a normal ear responds to sounds and also models the responses of a hearing-impaired person. The Neuro-compensator model decides how to adjust the volume for a sound as a whole to get optimal restoration of ear function.

 It amplifies the audio bands to try to reproduce near-normal neuronal activity in the brain and ear auditory system, even with damage to the ear. The idea is that the output  from the Neuro-compensator's software-on-a-chip methodology provides signals similar in strength and quality as those in a person without hearing loss.

About five or six years ago, Becker joined forces with former Gennum Corp. employee and now VitaSound chief technology officer Philippe Pango and benefited from an Ontario Centres of Excellence “Market Readiness” grant to take the technology further. Eventually, the research led to the Neuro-compensator device now being sold by VitaSound Audio. 

The hearing-aid market is huge. A 2011 report by iData Research, a large medical-device market research firm, valued the hearing-aid and audiology device world at more than $5.7 billion US in the United States alone. That market size was expected to reach $8 billion in another six years, said the report from Vancouver-based iData.

To further augment its research data, McMaster is beginning to do head-to-head – perhaps that's ear-to-ear – comparisons with other leading-edge hearing aid technologies. The study will look at such things as speech understanding, sound localization, and music perception.

“It would be tremendously gratifying to be able to see the fruits of all this work . . . all this collaboration at McMaster,” says Becker. “It would be very satisfying to feel like we would have had an impact on something so important.”

A video of Sue Becker explaining the Neuro-compensator technology can be found at VitaSound's website here