Colette McKay

veski innovation fellow

In September 2013, Professor Colette McKay accepted a senior veski innovation fellowship worth $200,000 over three years. The funding will be matched in cash and in-kind by her host organisation the Bionics Institute.

Prior to returning to Victoria, Professor McKay was the Chair of Applied Hearing Research at the University of Manchester from 2007 to 2013. On her return to Melbourne, she became the Leader of Translational Hearing Research at the Bionics Institute.

Research project title: Objective programming of cochlear implants and other devices for electrical stimulation.


Research project summary:

Cochlear implants have become a universally accepted method of restoring hearing to profoundly deaf individuals with infants as young as four-months old being implanted with the devices.

Programming is a difficult and lengthy process involving finding the range of electrical current producing an audible but not-too-Ioud sound on the many electrodes implanted in the cochlea; usually by asking the patient for feedback on the loudness.

This process is not feasible in infants and takes considerable clinic time, even in adults. Therefore a system that achieves the programming automatically by objectively measuring the neural responses to sound is urgently needed.

Not all users obtain a high level of speech understanding which is why it’s important that the programme converting sounds to electrical pulses is individually optimised.

Professor McKay’s research programme in Manchester has shown that the response of the hearing brain, rather than the hearing nerve in the cochlea, provides improved programming accuracy. New measurement and analysis techniques are needed to make it efficient enough for clinical use.

This project will demonstrate proof of principle of the new measurements and analysis techniques, and then work with Cochlear Ltd to implement the techniques in the clinics.

Professor McKay will also investigate Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), used for a range of medical conditions that don’t respond to alternative therapies, such as movement disorders, certain psychiatric disorders, and chronic pain.

The Bionics Institute, with the cooperation of Cochlear Ltd, has started a major neurobionics programme to develop a DBS device with better design and functionality than the existing commercial devices, and which utilises the platform technology of the cochlear implants.

This novel and important development in health technology is led by the Bionics Institute in Melbourne, and the results will be commercially implemented and trialled in clinics by the spin-off company Bionic Enterprises; supporting the clinical and commercial success of a new Victorian company.

Key facts:

  • At 14, Professor McKay, encouraged by her physics teacher, wanted to be a nuclear physicist.
  • She completed her undergraduate degree and PhD in Physics and Mathematics at the University of Melbourne and following this, also undertook clinical training in Audiology.
  • From 1989 to 2004, she held full-time research fellow positions in the University of Melbourne's Department of Otolaryngology.
  • In 1998, she was awarded a Senior/Principal Research Fellowship from the Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams Memorial Foundation, and in 2003, an NHMRC Principal Research Fellowship.

“The focus of my research is on ameliorating the impact of deafness in people’s lives. When an infant is born deaf and if their deafness goes untreated that will prevent them from developing oral language skills. And in adults deafness is a very severe social handicap … they can’t find employment and it impacts upon their social lives.”

Colette McKay