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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Emerging Science Note/Ear to the Ground

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports that cricket hairs could be an aid to the hearing-impaired.


CHU: Crickets, mostly known for their summertime chirping, may now help the hard-of-hearing. These leaping insects posses one of nature’s most sensitive sound detectors-- tiny hairs found along their two abdominal appendages. These hairs can detect tiny changes in air currents caused by low frequency sounds; they can be as imperceptible as the beating of wasp wings or the pounce of a spider.

Since crickets spend most of their time on the ground, these super-sensitive hearing aids buy them valuable time in escaping flying predators. Human hearing works in much the same way, with microscopic hair cells located in the inner ear. Lack of these cells has been implicated in some forms of deafness. So, scientists in the Netherlands have created artificial cricket hairs that could eventually be used to fine-tune cochlear implants for humans.

A team of physicists attached a few hundred artificial hairs made of polymer, to a thin membrane. When exposed to subtle air currents, the hairs bend and shift, causing the membrane to rotate. It's this rotation that makes it possible for crickets to pinpoint the direction of any given sound. Scientists hope to one day design cochlear implants that mimic cricket hairs, to help people with severe hearing problems. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Jennifer Chu.

[Cricket chirping]

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, online at mott dot org, supporting efforts to promote a just, equitable, and sustainable society; the Kresge Foundation, building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924, on the web at kresge dot org; the Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, from vision to innovative impact, 75 years of philanthropy. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: “Goya Night” Jocylyn Pook: FLOOD (Virgin) 1999]



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