These headphones can detect if a newborn has hearing problems

These headphones can detect if a newborn has hearing problems

A $10 device could make newborn hearing screening available to children around the world, giving thousands of children in low-income countries a better start in life.

Call: Almost every baby born in the US receives 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 school 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 impairment is detected, compared to an average age of 2 to 3 months in high-income countries.

“There is a tremendous amount of health inequity in the world,” said Shyam Gollakota, a professor at the University of Washington. “I grew up in a country where hearing screening was not available, partly because the screening equipment itself is quite expensive.

Early identification of hearing loss can help children avoid speech, social and school delays.

Idea: To help end this disparity, Gollakota and his colleagues developed a newborn hearing screening device using a pair of standard headphones, a microphone and a basic smartphone — and it performed as well as a commercial device in a clinical trial.

“The project is to take advantage of the ubiquity of mobile devices that people around the world already have—smartphones and $2 to $3 headphones—and make newborn hearing screening something that’s accessible to everyone without sacrificing quality,” Gollakota said.

Children in places without screening programs are on average 2.5 to 3 years old at the time hearing defects are detected.

How does it work: Commercial screening devices use speakers to broadcast two tones into the newborn’s ear at the same time. If the newborn hears tones, the hair cells in his inner ear will vibrate and produce a third tone that the device can detect.

The cost of speakers that can play two tones simultaneously without any interference is one reason commercial devices are so expensive, but the UW team found they could replicate this ability by connecting two headphones playing different tones to the probe.

“These algorithms can run in real time on any smartphone.”

Justin Chan

Designed to fit into a newborn’s ear, this probe also includes a microphone. When the tones are heard, the microphone can then pick up any sounds from the newborn’s ear and send them to the smartphone for processing.

“As you can imagine, these sounds coming out of the ear are very subtle and sometimes difficult to hear over ambient noise or when the patient moves their head,” said lead author Justin Chan.

“We designed algorithms in the phone that help us detect the signal [the third tone] despite all the background noise,” he continued. “These algorithms can run in real time on any smartphone and do not require the latest smartphone models.”

The probe (left) feeds data to the smartphone’s algorithm. Credit: Raymond Smith / University of Washington

The device was tested in a clinical trial involving 201 ears of people aged 1 week to 20 years, including 52 children aged up to 6 months – and it performed as well as a commercial device, correctly identifying all 66 ears with hearing loss.

While commercial newborn hearing screening devices cost thousands of dollars, the materials for their devices cost as little as $10, according to the researchers’ article, and second-hand smartphones can be bought for $35 to $50 in low- and middle-income countries.

“It’s quite gratifying to know that the research we’re doing can help directly address real problems.”

Justin Chan

Looking ahead: UW has now teamed up with people from the University of Nairobi and the Kenyan Ministry of Health to create Project TUNE (Toward Universal Newborn and Early Childhood Hearing Screening in Kenya) to bring their device to use in Kenya.

“Right now, it’s a prototype that we’ve built,” Chan said. “The next challenge is to really scale this up and then work with the local experts in each country who are most familiar with the specific challenges in each situation.”

“We have an opportunity to make a real impact on global health, especially newborn hearing,” he continued. “I think it’s quite gratifying to know that the research we’re doing can help directly address real problems.”

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