Teen Invents Headphones that Use AI to Treat & Detect Ear Infections

Leanne Fan explains how the Finsen Headphones work
Leanne Fan explains how the Finsen Headphones work

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Here’s how California native Leanne Fan combines medical treatment and music in these ingenious headphones.

14-year-old Leanne Fan was awarded the top prize at the 2022 3M Young Scientist Challenge for her “Finsen Headphones.” This one-of-a-kind device detects and treats middle ear infections.

The Finsen headphones take their name from Nobel Prize winner Niels Finsen. The Danish physician pioneered modern phototherapy, which uses ultraviolet light to cure skin diseases. With it, Finsen treated over 800 lupus vulgaris cases during his life. Of that number, more than 400 yielded successful results.

Fan, a 9th grader from San Diego, cites phototherapy as her favorite invention. She also says that it was the inspiration behind her headphones:

“Phototherapy has been overshadowed for decades due to the popularity and ease of use of antibiotics. Phototherapy is also commonly used for eczema and acne and is a non-medicinal way of killing bacteria and treating diseases. It is very versatile and has endless possibilities, and inspired me to start my project.” – Leanne FanThe Prevalence of Ear Infections in Kids

Also at the root of Fan’s invention is a desire to help those who suffer from middle ear infections. Notably those who don’t have access to affordable healthcare.

“Every year, over 10 percent of the world’s population experience a mid-ear infection, most of which are children or underprivileged people. Furthermore, not everyone has access to a doctor, which makes it difficult to diagnose and treat a mid-ear infection.” – Leanne Fan

According to studies, middle ear infections (otitis media) are most common in children aged 6 to 24 months. Acute cases can lead to permanent hearing loss if left untreated. Fan says that with her headphones, she hopes to provide a hassle-free, low-cost treatment that can reduce ear infections.

But how exactly do the headphones do this?

The Technology Behind the Finsen Headphones

In a two-minute video submission, Fan details how her headphones work. There are three main components – Teachable Machine, a 405-nanometer blue light, and a USB camera.

Teachable Machine is a Google machine-learning software that trains computers to recognize images. To facilitate this, Fan uploaded over 700 clinical photos of normal and infected eardrums to the program.

The headphones then use a USB camera in the ear cup to analyze and compare the wearer’s eardrum to those in its catalog of images. According to Fan, this detection system has an 85% accuracy rating.

The 405-nanometer blue light, on the other hand, handles the treatment aspect of the headphones. This type of light is well-known for its antimicrobial effects. And after conducting 200 tests on blue light exposure, Fan discovered that 45 minutes under blue light could reduce bacteria by 20%.

Why headphones? Fan says it’s a convenient way to treat children. Headphones are familiar, easy-to-wear devices, so children are less likely to feel scared or anxious. In addition, they can even listen to music during the treatment.

The Potential Impact of the Finsen Headphones

In Fan’s words, the Finsen Headphones “could potentially prevent up to 60% of hearing loss in children.” This alone is quite a feat. However, although Fan created the headphones with kids in mind, they could benefit people from all walks of life.

For instance, the Finsen Headphones could help prevent ear infections in those whose jobs require constant use of headphones. This includes those in customer service, call centers, sound engineers, and the like.

America’s Top Young Scientist of 2022

Aside from earning the title “America’s Top Young Scientist” and a complimentary destination trip, Fan also took home $25,000. She shares that she plans to use some of her winnings to patent her Finsen Headphones and then save the rest for college.

Interestingly, Leanne Fan isn’t the only budding scientist in her family. Two years prior, her older sister Kara Fan also took home the grand prize in 2019 for her nanoparticle liquid bandage.

💬 Conversation: 3 comments

  1. Wow. My non-verbal special needs students often have ear infections, but cannot express them. They are also very sensitive to sounds so wearing earphones helps them. This sounds like an ideal device that will really make a difference in their lives. Is the earphone available now? Is there any way I can buy or get one or more for my students to try?

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