Imagine a child, deaf from birth, who hears their mother’s voice for the first time; or an elderly person who, with age, has become profoundly deaf, regaining their hearing and the ability to communicate. This is what cochlear implants can do...

australia child

(Image courtesy of Cochlear Ltd.)

A cochlear implant is an electronic device that creates sound through stimulating tiny nerve fibres in the inner ear. The electrical impulses that the nerve cells receive are sent to the brain and interpreted as sound – a completely different system from the traditional hearing aid that simply amplifies sound. The internal component, which processes sound, is implanted surgically, while the external component is worn behind the ear. All the devices have multiple processing features such as the ability to focus on the immediate surroundings in a loud room, removing the frustration of not being able to hear in a crowded place.

Johnson Matthey has capabilities in manufacturing components for medical devices and one arm of its Australian business, located outside Melbourne, manufactures products for the Australian based global company, Cochlear, which pioneered these implants. Johnson Matthey produces high specification strip and wire products that go into the devices. The strips, which are made of platinum, are used for the fixtures and fittings that go into the internal device; the wire products, also of platinum, are made up of multi stranded wires which look almost like braided rope and transmit the electrical impulses around the unit.

Precision Engineering

This is precision engineering at an unbelievably small scale – at a fraction of a millimetre. The components must be reliable and durable – the devices are wholly implanted within the body of the recipient. Johnson Matthey Australia (JMA) worked alongside Cochlear to develop robust manufacturing routes and new machining techniques and new alloy configurations are being explored as part of JMA's ongoing innovation.

The benefits to the end users are massive. A child can now start life with hearing and attend mainstream school. Hearing loss is common in adults over 60 and researchers from John Hopkins University and the National Institute on Aging in the US have indicated that hearing loss in seniors is linked to social isolation, which is in turn a risk factor for dementia and mental health illnesses. Apart from the improved wellbeing that derives from being able to hear again, elderly recipients may also be protecting their mental health.

Life changing Technologies

Johnson Matthey Australia is also linked to research being done by a national consortium of researchers, Bionic Vision Australia, to create a 'bionic eye' – a complex system with an implant that stimulates the retina and can restore sight to people with certain types of vision impairment. Here again JMA is supplying platinum strip components. Commercialisation is around six to eight years away but progress to date is exciting.

These technologies are life changing and through its medical device components, Johnson Matthey is making a strong contribution to improving the lives of children and adults with sensory impairments.

Google "cochlear implant activation" to see videos of recipients switching on the device for the first time – testament to the power of cochlear implants to change lives.