14 November 2016

Thomas Lunner’s research has given improved hearing to millions of people with impaired hearing. He has been chosen as one of this year’s Alumni of the Year.

Thomas Lunner, årets alumn 2016Photo credit: Anna NilsenThomas Lunner has a pleasant journey to work every day. A ferry trip across the Sound and then 30 km along the coastal road. On his bike. Every day, summer and winter.

“Cycling allows me to relax, with the opportunity for creativity.”

The hours on his bike give Thomas time for reflection in what is otherwise a hectic life.

“It’s not a coincidence that some of my best research inspiration has come to me while cycling.”

In exactly the same way as the odd superb idea has also developed during the car journeys between the family home in Helsingborg and Linköping University.

The world’s first digital hearing aid

Thomas Lunner Årets alumn 2016Photo credit: Anna NilsenThomas Lunner was only 25 when he made a breakthrough in hearing research as part of his degree project in digital signal processing. This work subsequently formed the basis of the development of the world’s first digital hearing aid. This was a technological leap that gave huge improvements for millions of people with impaired hearing around the world, enabling individually tailored hearing aids and better sound.

Everything started in the final years of secondary school in Avesta, in the Dalarna region of Sweden. One of the girls in the class was severely hearing-impaired. Thomas Lunner had already developed an interest in both technology and medicine.

“I was truly fascinated: imagine what it would be like if we could develop technology that could amplify the sound she wanted to hear while filtering out other sound.”

A major breakthrough

His interest brought him eventually to master’s studies in civil engineering, specialising in applied physics and electrical engineering at LiU. And it was there, in the B Building, during the dark and quiet evenings that he and fellow student Johan Hellgren applied advanced mathematical methods to lay the foundation of what was to become in 1995 the first digital hearing aid. Collaboration was subsequently established with LiU professor Stig Arlinger and the Danish company Oticon, with its operations in hearing technology.

“We realised from an early stage that this was a major breakthrough: it was an invention that would reach all over the world.”

Thomas Lunner, årets alumn 2016Photo credit: Anna NilsenSince then, Thomas Lunner’s research in the field of hearing and hearing aids has continued, and he has been awarded many prizes. Today, he leads a large research team at Oticon. He works at the company’s research facility at Eriksholm, a few kilometres from Helsingör, and combines this with a part-time professorship in cognitive hearing science at LiU. This is associated with the Linnaeus Centre HEAD, a multidisciplinary research centre in the field of hearing impairment and hearing loss, where Thomas was one of the initiative takers.

He finds the combination of working in the business world and the academic world perfect. High-quality research can be immediately translated into the development of hearing aids.

“We are in contact with the best scientists in the world in this field. There are many who want to collaborate with us, since we have a proven track record of obtaining results.”

Risk factor for developing dementia

Thomas Lunner Årets alumn 2016Photo credit: Anna NilsenAt Oticon he is supervisor for around 10 doctoral students and postdocs from various parts of the world, everywhere from Holland, France and Denmark to Bangladesh and China.

“These are a significant part of the development and drive the work forwards. I’m responsible for 20 projects, so I end up sitting in many meetings all over the world to keep them moving forward. I feel like a circus performer sometimes, one of those who keeps loads of plates spinning on top of sticks at the same time. A plate may continue to spin on its own up to a certain point, then I have to go in and provide support such that the spinning can continue.”

Hearing is a highly active research area today. As the average age of the population increases, the number of people with impaired hearing is increasing. In addition, hearing impairment is a risk factor for developing dementia since many of those with poor hearing become socially isolated, which means that the brain receives less stimulation.

Collaborates with researchers into psychology

“Nearly a million people in Sweden have so poor hearing that they would benefit from using a hearing aid, but only 300,000 people use one.

The other 700,000 people, well – they are reluctant to take the step. It’s often a case of fearing the stigma of using a hearing aid, a reluctance to realise that one’s hearing is seriously impaired,” says Thomas Lunner.

“A person’s self-image is involved here. The acceptance that one is suffering from a chronic disease, and the ability to take the decision to use technical aids.”

This is why Thomas collaborates with researchers into psychology at LiU, where one of the elements used is internet-based treatment of those with impaired hearing using cognitive behavioural therapy, CBT.

Another major leap

Thomas Lunner Årets alumn 2016Photo credit: Anna NilsenThomas Lunner’s current focus in the intersection between hearing technology and cognitive functions. Modern hearing aids are increasingly adapted to the cognitive abilities of the individual user. Those with impaired hearing must use their working memory much more than those with normal hearing. This is particularly true, for example, in noisy surroundings with many people. This means that they become tired more readily, and their memory becomes poorer due to the exertion.

“The connection between the brain and hearing is a hot topic of research at the moment.”

In the coming ten years the technology will undergo another major leap, Thomas Lunner predicts. Tests in the laboratories at the Eriksholm research facility are helping scientists to develop technology in which the eyes and brain can direct the sound in a way that helps a person with impaired hearing. This is achieved with the aid of electrodes connected to the hearing aid. If, for example, a person with impaired hearing wants to listen to someone sitting on their left around a table, the idea is that it should be possible to use eye movements to control the sound such that this person’s voice becomes clearer than the background noise.

Far from achieving a perfect system

“Controlling the sound will be part of future hearing aids and this is a very exciting development. But we are far from achieving a perfect system. Hearing aids cannot give back normal hearing to the user, but they can compensate somewhat. I won’t be satisfied until we have achieved even better technology.”

So why is Thomas Lunner fascinated by the field of hearing, in particular?

The question makes him pause and think, and then he comes back to the girl in school.

“This girl was where it started, actually. This is what aroused my interest. I feel that I am on a mission. I want to help those with impaired hearing, because I can. I can be useful. And this, quite simply, makes me – happy.”