The World Health Organization estimates that the vast majority of people affected by hearing loss are in low and middle income countries. Hearing loss is particularly harmful for neuro-development if it is left undetected in early childhood. As a result, it is common practice in high-income countries (e.g., USA) to adopt guidelines for universal infant hearing screening and require newborn hearing tests for all babies born in the hospital.

So how is newborn hearing screening performed today? Of course, unlike a healthy adult, we can’t ask a newborn if they hear different audible tones. Instead, the current practice uses an ingenious observation that a healthy cochlea generates sounds of its own, called otoacoustic emissions. We normally think of the ear as something that just receives sound like a microphone. But interestingly, the cochlea can also generate sounds. These sounds are generated from the motion of the cochlea's sensory hair cells as they energetically respond to auditory stimulation. So if we are in a quiet room, a very sensitive device can pick up these faint sounds.

This requires sensitive hardware that contributes to the test equipment being thousands of dollars. This is cited as one of the reasons for limited to no-hearing screening in low and middle-income countries (e.g., India, Kenya). In these settings, getting access to hearing assessment and equipment may often require travel to an urban setting and potentially long wait times.

To address this problem, we designed an affordable earphone-based newborn screening tool where we use commodity earphones and microphones. We connect them to a smartphone where we run our algorithms to detect the weak sounds from the cochlea.

Check out our Nature biomedical engineering paper and the TUNE website to helping with universal new-born hearing screening to Kenya.