The human ear can do a lot more than just listen; it can now regulate an individual’s surroundings. A groundbreaking assistive tech that is under development by Dr Nick Gompertz and a team of researchers at the University of Bath has received new funding. It will help researchers refine and ultimately roll out the product to users that will allow patients with neurological disorders, such as Motor Neuron Disease (MND), to communicate with their environment via a computer.

EarSwitch is a a tiny, earbud-like device that could be placed inside the human ear and is coupled with one of the body’s smallest muscles, the tensor tympani. It is believed that the function of this muscle might be preserved for longer than other muscles in patients suffering from quadriplegia or advanced MND.

To use the EarSwitch, the wearer simply twitches or tenses the ear muscle. The device employs a built-in camera to pick up the movement of the tensor tympani muscle, enabling users to operate an assistive keyboard. In addition, it works with an assistive monitor or screen that analyses and evaluates the user’s chosen letters.

Although further study is needed, preliminary findings suggest that a considerable proportion of the population is capable of voluntarily engaging the tensor tympani muscle with the possibility of training it. Aside from employing this muscle to help people with neurological diseases, the team is investigating ear controls for mobile phone applications and gaming.

Bath researchers have received over £1.5 million in funding to create the path-breaking communication equipment. The first award of £1.45 million from the NIHR Product Development Award (PDA) will aid in developing EarSwitch as a medical device with required regulatory clearance. Similarly, the second award of £70,000 from the NIHR Invention for Innovation (i4i Connect) will be used to explore EarSwitch’s control of smart prosthetic devices.

This new invention could provide a valuable new channel for those who might not be able to communicate or control devices through traditional means. But it also could extend to convenient controls for people without impairments, such as answering a call without having to tap your ear buds.