Implant enables deaf young children to hear


A bionic ear implanted in profoundly deaf young children has enabled them to hear sounds and speak, British doctors said yesterday. Results of the world's largest study of cochlear implants showed that 87 per cent of all children aged two to 11 who had the implant before the age of five were able to speak functional language after three years. Almost as large a percentage was able to understand common phrases without lip reading.

"It's the first comprehensive study of cochlear implants in children," Dr Gerry O'Donoghue, a surgeon at the Queen's Medical Centre in of Nottingham, told a news conference. "It surpassed expectations."

Unlike hearing aids, which amplify sound, the cochlear, or bionic ear, is surgically implanted. Electrodes in the inner ear bypass the damaged area and create a nerve impulse which stimulates the auditory cortex of the brain.

An external microphone receives sound signals which are converted into electrical signals by a small speech processor and fed through the transmitter coil to the implanted receiver.

All 100 of the children followed in the study at Nottingham gained substantial hearing benefit from the bionic ear. Children who were born profoundly deaf benefit as much, and often more, than children who lost their hearing early in life, according to the doctors.

Dr O'Donoghue stressed that it was important that deaf children received the implant as early as possible because the auditory part of the brain had to be stimulated or it would lose its function. "It's a use-it-or-lose-it system," he said.

The study showed that the children who received the bionic ear were more likely to go to mainstream schools instead of schools for the deaf.

Parents reported the biggest change in their children's communication skills and spoken language one year after they received the implant.

"For me it's been an absolute miracle," Lord Ashley told the news conference. The 74-year-old member of Britain's House of Lords was left deaf after an operation 28 years ago. Before receiving the implant he couldn't hear any sounds.

"It isn't perfect by any means - voices are a bit distorted and birds sound husky, as if they have laryngitis, but who cares? At least I can hear birds," he said.

Dr O'Donoghue said that the treatment, which costs £18,000 for the implant and surgery, would not benefit all deaf people. Adults who had never heard were not suitable candidates.