Bionic ears or cochlear implants are artificial hearing devices that are surgically placed under the skin behind the ear. India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), has developed these devices that are now ready to carry out clinical trials. These devices have an external part that picks up sound from the environment, processes speech and transmits processed sound signals across the skin to the internal device. The internal device then converts the signals into electric impulses and sends them through an internal cable to electrodes which send them directly to the brain through the auditory nerve system.
DRDO’s bionic ear are expected to cost about Rs.1-1.5 lakh, and will be the world’s cheapest cochlear implant. With the help of philanthropists and governments, the prices can come down further.
More than 90% of the market for cochlear implants is cornered by three companies from Australia, Austria and the US, and the implants sold by them cost Rs.6 lakh and above. Cochlear implant surgeries are state funded for children in European Union countries and the US because of the high cost. In India, there have been a few attempts by some state governments to make these expensive surgeries free for the poor or be financed through insurance schemes in designated government hospitals. In 2009, the health ministry had issued a notice saying that it would reimburse as much as Rs.5,35,000 for cochlear implant surgeries of children, but only after it is approved by a standing committee of experts.The device is usually implanted before a child turns two, as the brain has a tendency to slowly disable the audio cortex from functioning in the absence of sound stimulus.
The cochlear implant developed by DRDO will be manufactured by Pacetronix, an Indore-based firm that makes pacemakers. So far, 50 bionic ears have been made for DRDO’s biocompatibility tests.
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