Bob Valentine was due for surgery. After losing hearing in his left ear, he was ready to have a hole drilled into his skull to insert a cochlear implant. But he heard about another option.
For the past few years, a team of Washington physicians, along with doctors across the country, has been working with California-based Sonitus Medical to develop a tiny device that helps patients regain hearing. The result is SoundBite, a prosthesis that transmits sound with the help of teeth.
“It’s producing outstanding results,” says Lawrence D. Singer, an assistant clinical professor of surgery at George Washington University Hospital who was involved in the process and worked to fit Valentine.
SoundBite is equipped with two devices, a behind-the-ear processor hooked up to a microphone in the ear canal and a retainer-like piece fitted to the upper back teeth. The parts work in tandem using bone conduction to transmit sound, which is first picked up by the ear mike and transmitted to the mouthpiece. Sound vibrations are sent through the teeth and bone to the damaged cochlea or ear canal. The sound is rerouted to the good cochlea, restoring the perception of hearing.
The FDA-approved SoundBite came at just the right time for Valentine, 69: “I’m shocked that I can cover my good ear and still hear in my deaf ear. It’s like I never lost hearing.” At 1½ centimeters, the hearing piece is nearly invisible to the naked eye; it sits within the canal of the impaired ear. Valentine says that while it took some getting used to, the mouthpiece doesn’t affect his eating.
Only 120 offices in the country offer SoundBite, including Singer’s practice. Once a patient has been evaluated by an ear, nose, and throat doctor, Singer’s role is to make sure the mouthpiece is compatible with the patient’s bite.
He’s working with a couple dozen patients who have been fitted with SoundBite, but the device is still a work in progress. “The battery technology is what’s holding SoundBite back,” says Singer. Currently, the rechargeable batteries last only eight hours. Also, for now SoundBite is limited to patients who are deaf in one ear or suffer from conductive hearing loss, which involves a reduction in sound level. SoundBite is projected to cost $8,000, though a current discount has it priced at $6,800.
Cochlear implants are still the best option for people who are severely hard of hearing or completely deaf and can no longer benefit from hearing aids, says Dr. Ashkan Monfared, director of otology and neurotology at the GW Medical Faculty Associates.
The continued development of SoundBite is especially important to Singer—his seven-year-old son was born with a hearing defect.