The age of the bionic man with abilities far above a regular human being may well be upon us. A research team at Princeton University have created a 3D printed ear which contains electronic inside it that can “hear” radio frequencies far beyond the range of normal human ears.
The ear is produced using a new radical 3D printing process to produce a cartilage structure within which is concealed a coiled antenna. Two wires lead from the base of the ear and are wound around a helical ‘cochlea’, the part of the ear that senses sound, which can connect to electrodes.
“In general, there are mechanical and thermal challenges with interfacing electronic materials with biological materials. Previously, researchers have suggested some strategies to tailor the electronics so that this merger is less awkward. That typically uses a 2D sheet of electronics and a surface tissue. However, our work suggests a new approach – to build and grow the biology up with the electronics synergistically and in a 3D interwoven format.”, explained Michael McAlpine, lead researcher and assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University.
Professor McAlpine says that the ear could be connected to a patient’s nerve endings allowing them to receive the electrical signals and “hear” the sounds around them. At the moment the bionic ear can only hear radio waves, but he said that it would be possible to incorporate pressure sensitive electronic sensors which would allow the ear to register acoustic sounds.
Further work and testing is required before this technology can be used on a real patient but it shows great promise as a way of restoring or enhancing human hearing.
Professor McAlpine’s lab are a leader in research of small scale medical sensors and antenna having previously developed a “tattoo” made up of a biological sensor and antenna that can be fixed onto the surface of a tooth. The bionic ear is their first attempt at a fully functional organ, and one that not only replicates a human ability, but actually increases it.