Cochlear Implant Developer Blake Wilson Elected to the National Academy of Engineering

Blake S. Wilson, a Duke University alumnus and faculty member who invented many of the sound-processing strategies used in modern cochlear implants, has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

In the Feb. 8 NAE announcement, Wilson was cited for “engineering development of the cochlear implant that bestows hearing to individuals with profound deafness,” for which he and colleagues also received the 2015 NAE Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize, considered the top prize in the world for bioengineering. Election to the NAE is among the highest professional honors for engineers.

“When we think of success stories that have had a profound impact on human health, especially for children, the cochlear implant ranks at the top,” said Ravi Bellamkonda, Vinik Dean of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. “Blake Wilson is a pioneer in engineering strategies for their success—indeed for their ability to recognize speech, the core of their function.  His work exemplifies Duke Engineering's remarkable contributions in the field of neural engineering, and creativity in applying fundamental engineering principles to medical devices that improve lives every day.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, about 36 million adults in America alone report some degree of hearing loss, ranging from difficulty hearing some high-pitched sounds to total deafness. The development of the cochlear implant provided a completely new way to treat hearing loss by translating sounds into electrical signals the brain can interpret and sending those signals directly to the auditory nerve—bypassing damaged or absent sensory hair cells in the inner ear.

Wilson began his work full-time on cochlear implants in the 1980s when he developed the “continuous interleaved sampling” system. The breakthrough made it possible for cochlear implant recipients to understand words and sentences with far greater clarity than before, and resulted in a rapid expansion in the number of deaf and nearly deaf persons who have received a cochlear implant in one or both ears. To date, hundreds of thousands of adults and children worldwide have received cochlear implants, and the great majority can talk on phones and follow conversations in relatively quiet environments.

“Blake Wilson’s work on cochlear implants epitomizes the power of merging engineering with applications in medicine,” said Nancy C. Andrews, dean of the Duke University School of Medicine. “The life-changing impact this device has had on people throughout the world is astounding. Blake’s election into the NAE is a tremendous honor and richly deserved.”

“Blake's research has transformed the lives of many thousands of children by giving them back their hearing,” added Ashutosh Chilkoti, chair of Duke’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. "It's a heartwarming example of the good engineering can do for society.  As impressive as his achievements are, what is even more extraordinary about Blake is his innate modesty and generous spirit. In his achievements and his personal attributes, he is a role model for all of us."

An adjunct professor of biomedical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and surgery at Duke University and co-director of the Duke Hearing Center, Wilson earned both bachelor’s and PhD degrees from Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. His numerous honors include being named as co-recipient of the 2013 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, one of the world’s most prestigious science prizes.

"I was overjoyed by the news from the NAE and immediately thought of how the spectacular education I received at Duke enabled me to contribute something special later in life,” said Wilson. “The development of the cochlear implant now has been recognized twice by the NAE, including the 2015 Russ Prize to me and four others. Hundreds of talented and dedicated engineers, physicians and scientists made that development possible, and I was supremely fortunate to be a part of the overall effort. Wow, what a ride!"

As an NAE member, Wilson will help carry out the academy’s mission of providing engineering leadership in service to the nation. He joins more than 2,500 peer-elected members and foreign members in the NAE, which serves as an advisor to the federal government and conducts independent studies to examine important topics in engineering and technology.

In addition to Wilson, NAE members on the Pratt School of Engineering faculty include Robert Calderbank, Ingrid Daubechies, Earl Dowell, Henry Petroski, Jennifer West and Mark Wiesner.

 

Blake Wilson describes the development of the modern cochlear implant as the featured speaker of the 2015 Duke Engineering 75th Anniversary Lecture.