John Galvin, PhD has been a cochlear implant researcher for more than twenty years pursuing a range of research interests including single-and multi-channel psychophysical studies, speech perception (English and other languages), sound source localization, music perception, and auditory training. Between grant submissions and publications, Dr. Galvin is an avid espresso drinker, tennis, squash, and pickleball player, and half of the avant-folk music duo, Danny Oxenberg & Bear Galvin. Musical and racket sport talents aside, we sat down with Dr. Galvin to learn more about his research tenure at the House Institute and promising technological advancements that offer new benefits to CI patients.
What are your title and responsibilities?
I am a research scientist. I design and conduct experiments, collect and analyze data, present and publish findings, and apply (and reapply and reapply) for funding. These days, it has been mostly about the writing. I collaborate with a number of researchers in the US and abroad. I look forward to conducting research more locally once the COVID-19 coast is clear.
How long have you been working at the House Institute?
I’ve been at the House Institute for nearly 25 years. I started out in Bob Shannon’s Auditory Prostheses lab and was there until the former House Ear Institute closed. Then I was at UCLA Head and Neck with Qian-Jie Fu for about 4 years, then back to the House Institute beginning in 2017. Strangely, my workplace address (2100 W. Third St., Los Angeles) didn’t change the entire time, only the institution. I suppose it took working remotely due to COVID to get me off the corner of Third and Alvarado…!
To date, what professional achievement are you most proud of?
I have a music background and have somehow managed to integrate music into my research. While the cochlear implant works quite well for speech perception (under ideal listening conditions), music perception is quite challenging for cochlear implant (CI) patients, due to poor pitch perception with the device. We developed a test (Melodic Contour Identification, or MCI) to quantify CI patients’ pitch perception. The MCI test has been extensively used in our research and in other research labs. We also found that MCI training helped to benefit music perception in CI patients to some degree. While the MCI test and training addresses only a small part of music perception, it has been helpful in engaging CI patients. Getting a little traction with music perception (e.g., with the MCI training) may encourage CI listeners to engage with music more frequently, which may help the brain adapt to the sound of the CI.
My interest in music has also extended to the CI research community. Every two years, more than 400 CI researchers from around the world meet at the Conference on Implantable Auditory Prostheses (CIAP) in Lake Tahoe. CIAP has long been regarded as the top CI research meeting in the field. As with most conferences, there is a party, often with a general business band performing. About 12 years ago, we started having the conference attendees be musical performers, as there were so many talented musicians among the scientists, researchers, and students. The “Music Night” (as it is called) has become a hallmark of the conference. It brings the CI research community together in so many ways, with different groups of researchers performing while the others dance and have fun. The Music Night strengthens the bonds in the research community and has helped to make CIAP a standout conference. I have been the de facto “music director” for the Music Night, organizing the musicians, rehearsals, set lists, gathering the equipment, etc.
What research project/area of research stands out for you in your time at House?
In a lot of ways, the speech training software that I helped to develop with Qian-Jie Fu has perhaps had the greatest impact on cochlear implant (CI) patients. Initially, we needed to develop some sort of training for our research for CI patients who were able to discriminate sounds with their device but could not identify them. Then we needed to modify the software to better accommodate patients with vision problems, or with varying degrees of computer skills. Then we needed to develop training stimuli that were different from those used for testing, which resulted in recording thousands of words produced by multiple talkers. A lot of other improvements came along the way, with training for environmental sounds, sentences in noise, music, etc. We found that the computer-based training provided about a 15-percentage point improvement in speech scores, even for experienced CI patients. The benefit of the training is as much if not more than many of the technological advancements in CIs, reinforcing the notion that brain plasticity is key to the success of the CI. The extensive training software (AngelSound) is freely available and has been downloaded by more than 100,000 CI patients, clinicians, and researchers, worldwide. We also recently developed a French version of AngelSound in collaboration with Dr. David Bakhos, and we are currently evaluating the software in French CI patients.
What current cochlear implant research is the House Institute doing?
Speaking for myself, I have an internally funded project to look at optimizing the CI for patients with single-sided deafness (SSD) by disabling one or more apical (low-pitched) electrodes. This may provide a benefit by allowing for better frequency matching across ears. I am working with Principal Investigator, Dr. Qian-Jie Fu (UCLA) on two NIH-funded grants regarding combined acoustic and electric hearing and binaural integration. I am also working with Dr. Monita Chatterjee (Boys Town) studying emotional communication in pediatric CI users; we recently submitted an NIH grant. With Dr. Qian-Jie Fu (UCLA) and Dr. David Bakhos (University of Tours), we recently created the French version of AngelSound, a computer-based speech training software program that CI users can use at home. We are currently conducting a pilot study at University of Tours, and recently applied for French national funding for a multi-center clinical trial. I am also collaborating with Dr. David Landsberger (NYU) on music perception in CI users. Alongside Dr. Ning Zhou (East Carolina University) we are studying electric charge integration in CI users (psychophysics study); we recently submitted a grant to the William Demant Foundation. I am also working on a searchable database of House CI patients that will be useful for subject recruitment and data mining.
What do you think is the future of cochlear implants?
There’s a lot of work going on with different stimulation strategies, hearing preservation, combined acoustic and electric hearing, drug-eluting electrodes (these deliver drugs to reduce inflammation and fibrotic growth after electrode insertion), etc. Electrocochleography is increasingly used to estimate cochlear regions with residual acoustic hearing during CI surgery and can be used to guide the electrode insertion depth or indicate problems with insertions. Some groups are working on a fully implantable CI, which I feel is largely addressing cosmesis issues, rather than improving on the actual stimulation of the implant. As time goes on, people will be more accepting of assistive devices, so I think functionality remains a most important goal. One of the former fellows at the House Clinic, Dr. Marlan Hansen is really doing some great, cutting-edge research on a variety of fronts, from electrocochleography to electrode design to robotic surgical systems. He recently gave a great talk at the House Institute’s Grand Rounds, which you can see here.
In a lot of ways, CI outcomes have improved because the implant criteria have been gradually reduced. Before, profound hearing loss in both ears was needed to be a CI candidate. Now, the criteria have changed to allow for some hearing in the ear to be implanted or the non-implanted ear. These changes have allowed for better outcomes for many CI patients. In general, it is probably better to implant ears before the hearing loss is too profound. As hearing preservation approaches continue to improve, CIs may be indicated for patients with “better” hearing impaired ears.