Hearing the news that your child has severe or profound hearing loss is devastating, but there’s hope: auditory implants. Designed for individuals who are unable to benefit from hearing aids, these implants are helping children hear the world around them for the first time.
Cochlear implants, as they are called, can help when the sensory cells in the inner ear are severely damaged.
How Do Auditory Implants Help Kids Hear?
Auditory implants help people with sensorineural hearing loss. What this means is that the tiny hair cells in the inner ear, called the cochlea, are damaged. These tiny hairs are what pick up on sound vibrations and send those signals to the brain through your auditory nerve.
When these hair cells are damaged, the sound vibrations can’t make it to the auditory nerve.
An auditory implant bypasses these damaged cells and sends signals directly to the auditory nerve.
While these implants cannot reverse hearing loss, they can help children hear speech and music.
How Cochlear Implants Work
Auditory implants consist of two parts: external and internal. The external part of the system hooks over the ear, while the internal part is implanted into the body. A powerful magnet helps these two components work together.
The internal component, or the implant, is placed under the skin and on the temporal bone. The implant has a receiver and a set of electrode arrays.
The receiver picks up on signals from the transmitter, and then converts those signals into electrical pulses. Those pulses are sent to the electrodes, which are implanted deep inside the inner ear.
The electrodes are what stimulate the auditory nerve, and the brain then interprets these signals as sounds.
The external component hooks onto the outside of the ear, and includes a transmitter, microphone and speech processor.
The unit that hooks around the ear (and looks like a conventional hearing aid) houses the speech processor and microphone. A tiny wire, which sits over the internal part of the device, hooks up to the transmitter.
The speech processor analyzes and digitizes the sound before sending it out to the transmitter, which then codes the signal and sends it to the implant through the magnet.
Learning Language with Auditory Implants
If children are exposed to sounds and language at an optimal period for developing language skills, they stand a higher chance of being able to communicate verbally as well as their peers.
Children who receive the implant early on, like at 18 months, and undergo intensive therapy are better able to speak and hear better than those who receive the implant at an older age, studies show.
Advancements are on the Way
In the quest to put an end to hearing loss, scientists are working on a number of technologies and therapies to help both children and adults hear.
Some are working on advancing the cochlear implant by transforming it into an optical device instead of an electric device. Cochlear implants turn sound waves into electrical signals that are sent to the nerve and brain. These devices would turn sound , which would flash onto neurons and send the signal to the brain.
Other researchers are focusing on fixing the root cause of the problem: the body’s cells. A professor at Stanford University is trying to revert damaged ear cells to their earlier state to restore healing. Birds have the ability to do this, but mammals do not.
Researchers are trying to figure out how cells tell each other to regenerate.
Some teams are exploring ways drugs can encourage the regrowth of neurons and hair cells.
While scientists don’t expect a quick fix for hearing loss anytime soon, these advancements in the industry can help dramatically improve the quality of people’s lives. Most of the technologies being worked on today won’t be available to the public anytime soon, but changes are coming in the next few decades.