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January 29, 2003

Device offers new lease on listening

From: Zanesville Times Recorder, OH - 29 Jan 2003

TR Staff Writer

Thousands of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals worldwide have a new lease on listening thanks to a small, electronic device surgically implanted behind their ear.

"I started losing my hearing in my early 20s," said Carol Dennis, 47, of New Lexington. "I quit using the telephone altogether in the late '80s."

A cochlear implant combines external and internal parts to provide direct electrical stimulation to the auditory nerve inside the inner-ear. Damaged hair cells in the cochlea are bypassed and the auditory nerve is stimulated directly.

The external parts of a cochlear implant include a microphone, a speech processor and a transmitter. The microphone looks like a hearing aid and is located behind a patient's ear.

The internal (implanted) parts include a receiver and electrodes. The receiver is implanted just under the skin behind the ear, and an array of electrodes are surgically inserted into the cochlea, or inner ear.

The microphone picks up sounds and sends them to the speech processor, which in turn analyzes and digitizes the sound signals and sends them back to a transmitter worn on the head just behind the ear.

The transmitter, which is actually magnetic, sends the coded signals to the implanted receiver.

"The external device picks up the sounds and transfers them into electrical impulses the individual can understand," said Paula Beale, an audiologist with Ohio ENT Surgeons Inc., in Columbus. "It's the sound they're always hearing, but the brain has to do some interpretation."

Cochlear implant patients often refer to sounds and speech as "robotic" or "electronic" when first becoming accustomed to the device. Gradually, over time, the brain adjusts and sounds become more normal. It takes anywhere from four to six weeks for the skin and ear to heal before patients can actually begin using their cochlear implants.

Jenna Woodburn, 15, a sophomore at Zanesville High School from McConnelsville, said she remembers everything sounding very electronic the first time doctors turned on her cochlear implant when she was 5 years old.

The teen is one of 60 students from more than 12 counties who attend Zanesville City Schools' hearing-impaired program, according to Jane Hodges, a speech therapist with the district. Of those students in the program -- which ranges from kindergarten through high school -- only eight have cochlear implants.

Beale said the procedure costs anywhere from $70,000 to $75,000, and patients are often forced to do battle with insurance companies who refuse to pay for the operation.

"It's really a major fight for these patients, especially for something that is so good for these patients," Beale said of how some deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals avoid cochlear implants due to the cost. "I think they're wonderful. I would implant everyone I could, if we could."