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26th October 2014

Cochlear implants: 50 years of ‘miracles’

Imagine you had never heard sound – until your doctor flicked a switch and introduced you to a sense you had never known.

Or think for a moment what it would mean to you to lose your hearing as a child only for a tiny device to give you back what you thought you had lost forever.

Some call it a ‘miracle’ but it’s not. It’s just the fruit of half a century of innovation.

Jonathan, the eight month old in this video lost his hearing at the age of four months following a bout of bacterial meningitis.

The disease damaged his cochlea, a small piece of the inner ear which contains thousands of sensitive hair cells. These hair cells send signals to the brain with information about the pitch and loudness of sounds. If your brain does not get these signals, you cannot hear.

For Jonathan, all the auditory ‘equipment’ he needed was in working order, except for the cochlea. So his doctors saw him as a good candidate for a cochlear implant – a device that sends electrical messages directly to the auditory nerve, bypassing the cochlea.

As the implant is activated, he hears his mother’s voice for the first time in four months. His head turns towards her, his eyes light up, and the pacifier drops from his mouth as he smiles broadly. You don’t need to believe in miracles to be moved by this!

Adults & children can benefit

Cochlear implants were invented in the 1960s by Dr House – a Californian-based otologist, rather than the narcissistic TV disease detective. Several decades of international research and hundreds of prototypes later, these tiny devices are giving people the power to hear – and, in some cases, the ability to speak.

The implant consists of a microphone which picks up sound waves and a speech processor that converts these waves into an electrical signal. Inserting the device requires surgery to place the receiver in the bone just behind the ear, and electrodes are coiled around the cochlea.

Young children like Jonathan are often selected for cochlear implants because they have heard before and their deafness has not yet had a profound impact on their speech.

Adults can benefit too. In this video, 21-year-old Raia hears clearly for the first time in her life. She – and her mother – are quite happy about this dramatic change!

Cochlear implants are not the answer for everyone with hearing problems. In certain cases a cochlear implant simply will not work because their auditory nerve is not functioning.

But, for some medical researchers, ‘impossible’ is not an option. Researchers at the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina gave this boy an auditory brain stem implant, effectively bypassing the auditory nerve and going directly to the brain itself.

If you don’t have time for the whole video, just click to 10 seconds and look at his face!

These technologies are at the cutting edge of innovation, dramatically transforming people’s lives. Of course, many people who are hard of hearing can benefit from (relatively) simple hearing aids which amplify sound.

These small devices can be fitted externally or placed just inside the outer ear without the need for surgery.

The WHO says around 360 million worldwide suffer hearing loss, although only 10% of that number have a hearing aid.

Older people often benefit from these devices as their hearing capacity fades with age. But even three-month-old babies like Marielle (see video below) can use hearing aids.

In this case, Marielle was later given a cochlear implant at the age of two and a half years but, because the hearing aid enabler her to hear during her early years, the language centres in her brain developed normally.

She was able to speak, socialise and keep up with the same games and school work as her peers.

Maybe we should call it a miracle.

You are free to share this article under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.

Header Photo credit: Bjorn Knetsch/Wikimedia

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