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Cochlear Implants for Kids: Earlier Surgery Works Best

Study Identifies a Window of Opportunity for Cochlear Implants in Deaf Children
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 20, 2010 -- The sooner children with hearing loss receive cochlear implants, the better, according to new research in the April 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Children who receive cochlear implants before 18 months of age are better able to hear, comprehend sound and music, and speak than are their counterparts who receive the implants at a later age.

“Early-onset deafness is a common childhood disability that we can do something about,” lead study author John Niparko, MD, the director of otology, neurotology & skull base surgery at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, says in an email. “Using this technology in a strategic manner appears to carry profoundly positive effects.”

What Are Cochlear Implants?

Often referred to as “bionic ears,” cochlear implants are much different than hearing aids, which only amplify sounds. By contrast, cochlear implants bypass damaged parts of the ear and stimulate the auditory nerve. The implant generates signals that are sent to the brain via the auditory nerve. The brain then recognizes these signals as sound. These small electronic devices consist of an external component that sits behind the ear, and a second part that is surgically placed under the skin.

Hearing loss can completely disrupt a child’s ability to learn to talk and understand what people are saying, Niparko says. “Children normally begin to pair the sounds of speech with meaning between six months and one year, [but] if a child cannot hear the full range of speech sounds at this age, the opportunities of learning speech and reflecting their thoughts by talking begin to diminish,” he says.

Earlier Implants Can Close Language Gap

Enter cochlear implants.

In the new study, 188 children aged 6 months to 5 years were followed for three years after they received cochlear implants. Researchers then analyzed their language development and compared it to that of 97 children without hearing loss.

Children who received the implants before they turned 18 months showed speaking ability that stayed close to that of their hearing counterparts, the study showed. Children who received the cochlear implant after they turned 3, however, still exhibited some gaps when compared to same-age children without hearing loss.

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