A $10 device could make newborn hearing screening accessible to babies everywhere, potentially giving thousands of children in low-income countries a better start in life.
The challenge: Almost all babies born in the United States undergo a newborn hearing screening before they even leave the hospital. This can ensure that any hearing loss is identified early, helping the child avoid the speech, social and academic delays that can accompany late detection.
However, many low-income countries do not have newborn hearing screening programs. Children in these places are on average 2.5 to 3 years old when their hearing impairments are detected, compared to an average age of 2 to 3 months in high-income countries.
“There is a tremendous amount of health inequality around the world,” said Shyam Gollakota, a professor at the University of Washington. “I grew up in a country where there was no hearing screening available, partly because the screening device itself is quite expensive.”
Identifying hearing loss early can help children avoid speech, social and academic delays.
The idea: To help end this inequity, Gollakota and colleagues developed a newborn hearing screening device using a standard pair of headphones, a microphone, and a basic smartphone — and it worked just as well as commercial devices. in a clinical study.
“The project here is to leverage the ubiquity of mobile devices that people around the world already own – smartphones and $2-$3 headphones – to make newborn hearing screening accessible to everyone without sacrificing quality” , said Gollakota.
How it works: Commercial screening devices use loudspeakers to simultaneously send two tones into a newborn’s ear. If the newborn can hear the tones, the hair cells in their inner ear will vibrate, producing a third tone that the device can detect.
The cost of speakers that can play two tones simultaneously without any interference is one of the reasons commercial devices are so expensive, but the UW team found they could replicate this capability by connecting two headphones playing different tones to a probe.
“These algorithms can work in real time on any smartphone.”
This probe, designed to fit inside a newborn’s ear, also contains a microphone. When the tones are played, the microphone can then pick up all the sounds from the newborn’s ear and send them to a smartphone for processing.
“As you can imagine, these sounds coming out of the ear are very soft, and sometimes it’s hard to hear them despite ambient noise or if the patient moves their head,” said lead author Justin Chan.
“We have designed algorithms on the phone that help us detect the signal [the third tone] even with all that background noise,” he continued. “These algorithms can work in real time on any smartphone and do not require the latest smartphone models.”
The device was tested in a clinical trial involving 201 ears belonging to people aged 1 week to 20 years, including 52 babies up to 6 months old – and it performed as well as a commercial device and correctly identified the 66 ears with hearing loss.
While commercial newborn hearing screening devices cost thousands of dollars, according to the researchers’ paper, the materials for their device cost only $10, and second-hand smartphones can be had for $35 to $50 around the world. low- and middle-income countries.
Look forward: UW has now partnered with people from the University of Nairobi and Kenya’s Ministry of Health to create the TUNE project (“Toward Universal Newborn and Early Childhood Hearing Screening in Kenya”), with the aim of putting their device in practice in Kenya.
“Right now it’s a prototype that we’ve created,” Chan said. “The next challenge is really to scale that up and then work with local experts in each country who know best the particular challenges of each situation.”
“We have the opportunity to have a real impact on global health, especially on newborn hearing,” he continued. “I think it’s quite gratifying to know that the research we’re doing can directly help solve real problems.”
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