Laser technology developer Aculight Corp. has been awarded a $750,000 SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) Phase II grant from the National Institutes of Health for its project with Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., to develop an optical cochlear implant (OCI). "We're laying the foundation for a laser-based cochlear implant that provides users with dramatically improved fidelity over current electrical implants," said Mark Bendett, Aculight's director of medical products. The OCI produced will be used in research studies at Northwestern prior to being developed for clinical applications, he said. Electrical implants have problems stimulating specific nerves inside the cochlea because the electrical signals spread due to the body's wet, salty composition. Techniques to mitigate the problems still result in an imperfect simulation of normal hearing, Aculight said. Optically-based cochlear implants could stimulate nerve fibers more accurately because optical pulses in different places on the nerve wouldn't interfere with each other. As a result, Aculight said, users could experience a level of hearing unachievable with current technology, one that would allow them to listen to the subtle tones and nuances in music or distinguish a single voice in a noisy room. "And because an OCI can complement residual hearing, implants wouldn't need to be restricted to the profoundly deaf like they are today. There would be a much larger pool of people that we could help," said Bendett. Aculight said it will make the OCI, along with its infrared neural stimulator the Capella R-1850, at its facility in Bothell, Wash. Aculight will feature its neural stimulation technology at Neuroscience 2007 in San Diego, Calif., Nov. 3-7, Booth 3823.