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14th December 2016
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14th December 2016

Bionics of the future

Discover how Professor Graeme Clark’s work continues to push the boundaries of scientific possibility…

Science or science fiction? In the 1960s and ’70s, the idea of sending electric currents into the brain to allow deaf people to hear seemed like the pipedreams of an eccentric inventor. Leading scientists said it couldn’t be done. Yet Professor Graeme Clark persevered, ignoring the naysayers and the taunts, to pioneer cochlear implant technology.

Professor Clark’s work has now helped transform the lives of over 450,000 recipients with implantable hearing solutions from  Cochlear™. But as well as changing the science of hearing, Professor Clark’s ground-breaking neuro-engineering research continues to inspire others to push the boundaries of scientific possibility in a variety of medical fields.

As a tribute to Professor Clark’s extraordinary work (past, present and future), Cochlear Family News looks at the wonderful opportunities on the horizon thanks to Professor Clark’s ‘bionic ear’.

Easing movement disorders

Driven by his personal motivation to help his hearing-impaired father, Professor Clark was determined to help people with hearing loss. Yet successfully stimulating nerves with multichannel electrodes has opened up a world of opportunity for neuroscience.

Electric brain stimulation can also benefit millions of people affected by debilitating conditions like epilepsy. This deep brain stimulation (DBS) sends targeted electrical impulses to the brain through surgically implanted electrodes. Sounds familiar?

Helping paraplegics

In the same way as the 22-channel electrodes in a cochlear implant stimulate the hearing nerve, these electric current transporters have the potential to carry information across a damaged spinal cord. Researchers at the University of Wollongong’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterial Science (ACES) are experimenting with bypassing damaged parts of the spine by connecting motor neurons through a spinal cord implant. This may have transformative implications for people suffering from paralysis.

The Bionics Institute, a not-for-profit research organisation formed to continue developing bionic ear innovations, is developing electrodes coated with nerve growth factors to prevent cell degeneration. In the future, this could actually regrow damaged spinal cord (and hearing) nerves.

Powering implants with bacteria

When developing the next generation of hearing technology, engineers and scientists not only have to try to improve sound processing capability, they also need to think about how to power the devices. Believe it or not, the answer could be bacteria.

Xiaoteng Jia, from ACES, is developing the ‘ideal power source’ – a biocompatible and biodegradable battery to drive bionic implants.

One atom-thick electrodes!

Did you know that the humble pencil is changing the course of biomedical engineering? The graphite you write with is actually comprised of millions of layers. Which means it can be broken down to a single layer – graphene. (Believe it or not graphene was first created by repeatedly removing each layer with sticky tape!) The wonder material could one day produce cochlear implant electrodes. The technology is being trialled at the Centre for Neural Engineering at Melbourne University, and rather than 22 connections to the brain, it could create a thousand or more!

Now in his 80s, Professor Clark’s work is still at the cutting edge of scientific and technological progress. He remains an inspiration for scientists and Cochlear implant recipients alike.


Centre for Neural Engineering at Melbourne University

Read more on the project trial in this article from the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.

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