Cochlear Implants a Success for Once-Deaf Kids
Most Once-Deaf Children Still Hear 10-13 Years After Implants
March 24, 2005 -- Most deaf kids learn to hear after getting cochlear
implants. And they keep on hearing, a long-term study shows.
A cochlear implant isn't a hearing aid which amplifies sound. Part of the
computerized device is implanted under the skin behind the ear -- with
electrodes that go deep into the ear. The devices turn sound waves into
electric signals that are passed to nerve fibers leading into the brain. They
allow even profoundly deaf people to hear.
It's not an overnight cure. People have to learn how to make sense of the
signals a cochlear implant gives to the brain. At first it sounds like a
mechanical noise. But eventually the brain adapts and recognizes more normal
speech sensations. This takes time and lots of work. And it's not cheap. The
average cost, including surgery and rehabilitation, is $40,000.
Over the long haul, is it worth it? For kids the answer is yes, suggest Jan
Haensel, MD, and colleagues at Germany's Aachen University Hospital. The
researchers collected data on 16 kids who got cochlear implants 10 to 13 years
ago. They report their findings in the March issue of
Best Results in Youngest Kids
Overall, Haensel's team found that 14 of 16 kids who got implants now say
they can hear. Four of the kids learned to hear and speak well enough to enter
mainstream schools. But six of the kids never learned to understand normal
The kids in the German study were 3 to 12 years old when they got their
implants. Those who never learned to understand normal speech got their
implants latest. That's because there's a window of opportunity for children to
get the maximum benefit from cochlear implants, says Douglas Mattox, MD,
professor and chair of otolaryngology at Atlanta's Emory University.
"There is a window that closes after which the implant is of no
value," Mattox tells WebMD. "That is sometime in childhood. Whether it
is age 4 or 6 or 8 years we don't know, but clearly [getting implants] earlier
Haensel's team says that their results led them to refuse to do implants on
kids over the age of 6 years. That's anathema to Jane R. Madell, PhD, who
bristles at the idea. Madell is co-director of The Beth Israel/New York Eye
& Ear Cochlear Implant Center, and director of the hearing, speech,
language, learning center at Beth Israel Medical in New York.
"I guarantee kids implanted at 6 or 8 or 10 won't do as well as those
implanted at 10 months," Madell tells WebMD. "But they still will get
outstanding benefit. That is not a reason not to do implants in older
Mattox, too, says that doctors currently get better results than those
reported by Haensel's team.
"This report understates, not overstates, the expected results of
cochlear implants in children," he says. "In Atlanta, children
implanted before age 3 are mainstreamed in school before they reach the middle
years of primary school."