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For the Hearing Impaired … Discovery May Have Wings

By Jack Douglas Jr.
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NORTH TEXAS (CBS 11 NEWS) – Emily Doughty has an infectious smile, a bright outlook on life … and a problem hearing.

“I’m just a girl who has a problem with my ears,” said Emily, a 17-year-old senior at Boswell High School in Fort Worth. “I’ve had 13 surgeries. I’ve had hearing aids constantly. It’s just challenging.”

For every 1,000 people born in the United States, between two to three have total or significant hearing loss, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Emily is one of them.

“Sometimes I do feel left out on conversations and jokes,” she said. “I mean, people treat you different.”

After all of the surgeries, beginning when she was 4 or 5, she can hear adequately in one ear, but still relies on a hearing aid in the other. And that can be rattling, even painful, when that hearing device picks up unfiltered noises – a door slamming, a crowded restaurant, someone getting close.

“Whenever you hug someone… the ringing sound, you feel like a robot,” Emily said, in an emotional interview with CBS 11.

But help may soon be on the way, in flight, ready to land, in the form of a direct descendent of the common housefly that is native to Texas.

So, if you come across one, as it prepares to dive in to the food you left out the night before, don’t bother picking up a fly swatter …because it will hear you coming before you finish your swing.

“Scientists discovered that this particular fly was locating crickets based on the sound emitted by the cricket,” said Neal Hall, an acoustics scientist at the University of Texas at Austin.

“That was puzzling to scientists as far back as forty years ago,” Neal said in an interview with CBS 11.

Only recently, Neal and a handful of other researchers across the country have been working to replicate the hearing organ of this specific fly, known formally as the “Ormia ochracea.”

So what gives this fly super hearing – able to focus on what it needs to hear, and filter out everything else?”

“The fly has something that resembles a teeter-totter, something you might see on a children’s playground,” Neal said. “Sound travels across it. It hits one side just a split second before the other, and that’s enough to tip the teeter-totter just enough for it to go in to a rocking motion,” he said.

And that rocking motion, Neal added, is what helps the fly determine the direction in which the sound is coming from.

A new hearing aid that utilizes the “teeter-totter” method is expected to be available, and affordable, within the next two years.

There are also hopes that the fly ear replication will be used to improve how smart phones pick up conversations, and that it will give the military and police a valuable tool to pick up the slightest sound of danger – like a sniper hiding in the dark.

Meanwhile, what you may see as a nasty critter about to pounce on your pie, Emily, instead, sees as hope that one day the ringing will stop when she wants to give someone a hug.

“It’s real exciting,” she said with that smile. “Maybe this will work. They’ve been trying to find new stuff…and I’m just hoping that one hearing aid will help people like me, people older than me, and little kids.”

(©2014 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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