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3D-Printed Bionic Ear Can Hear Radio Waves

May 02, 2013 10:22 AM EDT

Fred and George Weasley may have met their match in a bionic ear created by Princeton scientists capable of “hearing” radio frequencies a normal, human ear cannot.

The researchers’ primary purpose when undertaking the project was to explore an efficient and versatile means of merging electronics with tissue, according to a press release from the university.

In order to achieve the final product, the scientists "printed" cells and nanoparticles that were then followed by a cell culture used to combine a small coil antenna with cartilage.

Creating organs using 3D printers is a recent medical and scientific advancement, and while reports of printed organs have surfaced over the past several months, the ear represents the first time researchers have successfully demonstrated that the technology can be used to interweave tissue and electronics.

“Biological structures are soft and squishy, composed mostly of water and organic molecules, while conventional electronic devices are hard and dry, composed mainly of metals, semiconductors and inorganic dielectrics,” said David Gracias, an associate professor at John Hopkins and co-author of the publication. “The differences in physical and chemical properties between these two material classes could not be any more pronounced.”

Bridging this divide, Gracias said, represents a new age in the creation of smart prostheses and implants.

Furthermore, as the group wrote in the article that appears in the journal Nano Letters, the design and implementation of bionic organs has the promise not only of restoring lost ability, but actually providing individuals with greater-than-human capacity, whether it be hearing or other facilities.

The finished ear consists of a coiled antenna inside a cartilage structure with two wires leading from its base that then wind around the helical “cochlea,” or part of the ear that senses sound, which can then connect to electrodes. And while the current system receives radio waves, the team said they plan to incorporate other materials, such as pressure-sensitive electronic sensors that would enable the ear to register acoustic sounds.

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