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16 June 2008--A new microchip design uses about a 30 000th as much power as comparable chips and could lead to long-lasting implantable biosensors, researchers report this week at the VLSI Symposia, in Hawaii.

The Phoenix processor has an average power consumption of only 39 picowatts for a typical sensor application, such as monitoring pressure. That's about four orders of magnitude more efficient than other designs. The chip and sensor, enclosed in a 1-cubic-millimeter package with a thin-film battery, could run for a year or more, say David Blaauw and Dennis Sylvester, two professors of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan. Such tiny low-power processors will be useful as controllers for sensors. The chip was developed as part of a project to design a pressure sensor to be implanted in the eyes of glaucoma patients.

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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler
Blue

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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