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October 25, 2002

New type of hearing aid is implanted in the middle ear

From: Asheville Citizen Times, NC
Oct. 25, 2002

By Leslie Boyd

ASHEVILLE - The biggest difference Lucy Rowe notices with her new hearing device is that her right ear canal isn't blocked up. Things might sound a little clearer than before, too, and there's no feedback whistle.

Rowe and her friend Anne McKenzie, both retired missionaries living in the Brooks Howell Community, are the first two patients in Western North Carolina to get a new middle-ear implant that doesn't require a receiver in the ear.

Rowe's implant was activated Tuesday afternoon; McKenzie's ill be activated in a week or so when her incision has healed completely.

"I don't notice a big difference except I keep reaching into my ear and there's nothing there," she said a day later. "I think I'll notice more as I get used to it."

The Vibrant Soundbridge, manufactured by Symphonix 0f San Jose, Calif., consists of a transducer that floats near the three tiny bones in the ear, amplifying their vibrations to the cochlea, which processes the vibrations. The transducer is connected by a thin wire to a receiver, which is implanted under the skin behind and slightly above the ear. An audio processor is held to the scalp on the outside by a powerful magnet. The processor, about the size of a coat button, is usually hidden by the wearer's hair.

Cynthia Earle, of Asheville Audiology Services, cares for Rowe and McKenzie. She said the device helps people who have the most common type of hearing loss, sensoryneural. About one in 10 Americans has a hearing loss and 90 percent of those have sensoryneural loss, Earle said.

The Vibrant Soundbridge is for people with mild to moderate hearing loss. It isn't for people with middle-ear damage, and after it's implanted, the patient can't have a MRI because of the magnet.

Conventional hearing aids help people hear better, but some people don't like the way they feel in the ear. They don't filter out background noises, so conversations in places with background noise can still be difficult to understand.

This device doesn't filter out background noise altogether, but it is an improvement, says Beth McDonald, a Symphonix representative.

The implant surgery outpatient so the patient goes home the same day. It takes about 90 minutes and is covered my most private insurance plans, although Medicare hasn't approved it yet. In North Carolina, three surgeons perform the surgery, one each in Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Charlotte. The device, also covered by some insurance plans, costs $2,500-less than some digital in-ear models, Earle says.

Once the incision is healed sufficiently - usually about eight weeks after surgery - an audiologist activates the processor, which is programmed to meet each patient's needs.

So far, about 1,000 of the devices have been implanted worldwide, said McDonald, and about 300 in the United States. Contact Boyd at 232-2922 or e-mail