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A Princeton University team has successfully merged electronics and biology to create a functional ear that can “hear” radio frequencies. The tissue and antenna were merged via the use of an “off-the -shelf” 3D printer, and the results have the potential to not only restore but actually enhance human hearing in the future.
The Princeton team is developing the process by using a technique whereby the electronics and biology are built and grown together in an interwoven format. This creates a form of cybernetic implant that has the potential to actually improve human hearing in the future.
The ear itself consists of a coiled antenna within a cartilage structure, with two wires leading from the base and winding around the helical “cochlea” – the area of the ear that senses sound. The signal registered by the antenna could be connected to a patient's nerve endings in a similar way to a hearing aid, restoring and improving their ability to hear.
The 3D printing technique uses computer-aided design to create the organ from thin layers of material. The stock 3D printer then combines the matrix of hydrogel and calf cells with the silver nano particles that form the antenna. At present, the antenna is only able to detect radio waves, and requires a great deal of further testing before it can be trialled on human patients. The team hopes to refine the technology in the future, allowing the ear to register conventional acoustic sounds.