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Dr. Fan-Gang Zeng: Creator of Chinese Cochlear Implant, Nurotron

April 19th, 2013 by | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

Dr. Fan-Gang Zeng, Ph.D. researcher at University of California – Irvine, researched and created a cochlear implant known as Nurotron that is being developed in China. He shares invaluable information about the Chinese cochlear implant.  While Nurotron is only available in China, the company is considering expanding the market to Latin America and the US.

Zeng 2012 Lab


When did you first learn about hearing loss and what inspired you to pursue the research in hearing loss?

I was aware of hearing loss when I was very young as one of my friend’s parents were both deaf and mute (as a result of deafness of course). I started to work in hearing research in 1982 when I finished up my undergraduate study in electrical engineering and entered the institute of physiology in Shanghai as a Master student. I continued my study on mostly theoretical aspects of hearing and speech at Syracuse University, but decided to switch to more practical side of research after finishing my PhD in 1990. I looked for an emerging area that can combine my training in electrical engineering and neuroscience and found cochlear implants – a medical device that uses electric currents to stimulate the auditory nerve. Bob Shannon at the House Ear Institute took me as his post-doc and has been mentoring me since then.


While there are already four known cochlear implant manufacturers in the world, what inspired you create a new cochlear implant?

The problem is dominance by Cochlear, which controls about 70% of market worldwide. In my opinion, this dominance has resulted in relatively a high price over a long period of time despite the fact that the cochlear implant market has been increasing steadily in the same period. Generally when the volume increases, the price should drop but we don’t see this drop in the cochlear implant field. The high price has yielded healthy profit but prevented market penetration, particularly in developing countries like China and India. It only takes one to see a deaf child who is healthy otherwise but cannot afford an implant – that’s my motivation. I wrote a viewpoint article on this subject to elaborate the importance of competition (Hearing Journal, March 2007, 60(3):48-49).


How is Nurotron different from the other cochlear implant manufacturing companies?  What features will be unique to Nurotron?

The basic principles are the same across all cochlear implant manufacturers. I have been in the field for more than two decades, and assembled a team with more than 100 years of collective experience when we started to lay out the specifications for Nurotron device. We have designed a system that has the most intra-cochlear electrodes (24) and 4 current sources, allowing monopolar as well as other “futuristic” stimulation modes. The overall stimulation rate is 44kHz – slower than Advanced Bionics but faster than Cochlear. We have also designed a flexible electrode array that allows close contact to neural tissues while being capable of preserving residual acoustic hearing.


I understand that one of the challenges with cochlear implants in Chinese population is developing a processing strategy that allows them to understand tonal language.  Are you researching this situation?

We have spent much time to improve tonal language perception by implant listeners. At present, the approved strategies have not adopted the latest research.


Can you share the very first Nurotron cochlear implant procedure you completed?

The first two subjects were implanted by Dr. Chi, a famous surgeon in Shanghai, on December 23 2009. I wasn’t present during the surgery but a former student of mine, Dr. Hongbin Chen, was. I remember being on the phone monitoring the situation – from pre-operative procedures to successful recording of evoked responses. Both patients have been using the device since with one of them being a star performer.


How do candidates for cochlear implants in China receive financial support?

With few exceptions, adults have to pay for themselves. Through support from both central and local governments, deaf children who are under 7 years old may get cochlear implants essentially for free. Most implantees still have to pay themselves for maintenance and (re)habilitation, which sometimes can be prohibitively expensive. The Chinese government has significantly increased its investment while being able to negotiate lower price in recent years, increasing the number of implanted children from several hundreds to several thousands annually. With  more than 30,000 children born with deafness every year, there is a huge unmet need.


What kind of audiological/mapping infrastructure is available in China?  

There is the biggest bottleneck at present because there is minimal audiological infrastructure in China. There is no official audiology graduate program and only one bachelor degree program in audiology (Zhejiang Chinese Medical University). Mapping has done by biomedical technicians, special educators, and sometimes the ear doctors themselves.


What is the situation there with newborn hearing screening?

There is an active area of research and service in China. Several cities and provinces such as Beijing, Shanghai and Zhejiang have implemented the newborn hearing screening program. The central government is planning a national program.

1 Comment

fred billhorn

January 18, 2014 at 5:18 pm

i have total hearing loss in my left ear which occured in 5 or 6 months time 2 years ago. i already had 60% hearing loss in my right ear which has since deminished to 90%.I wear a resound hearing aid in my right ear which does little good.what i do hear is very distorted.can you suggest one that might not be as distorted?