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February 26, 2003

Internet guru hails electroneural technology in cochlear implants

From: New Zealand Herald, New Zealand - 26 Feb 2003


The silence had stretched out for decades, but suddenly Sigrid Cerf could tell whether people padding up and down the hallway outside were wearing rubber or leather-soled shoes.

Sigrid is married to Dr Vinton Cerf, the man who helped invent the core internet technology. But it was different technology - a cochlear implant - that gave Sigrid the ability to communicate freely after years of deafness.

While Dr Cerf was in Auckland espousing the virtues of technical innovation at last week's Knowledge Wave conference, Sigrid had her own agenda - to spread the cochlear gospel.

In 1996 she had a cochlear implant - an electronic device that creates hearing sensation by stimulating nerves in the inner ear - inserted during a US$34,000 operation.

While the operation was expensive, the phonecall she made to her husband afterwards showed the success it had been.

"We had the first intelligent telephone conversation in thirty years of married life," she told the Herald.

At that time it was still responding to "yes" or "no" questions, but the difference was Sigrid could now hear.

She started losing her hearing at the age of three, following a bout of meningitis. Her hearing gradually deteriorated to the stage that she had a hearing deficit of 100 decibels.

She could have stood next to a running jet engine and heard nothing. Having grown up communicating mainly through writing, Sigrid had to learn spoken vocabulary. She listened to hundreds of talking books and spoke constantly on the phone.

These days she carries around a little box to power the implant. The sound isn't perfect - orchestras sound like a "garbage disposal", but she can enjoy solo instruments like the flute.

Her ear on the world is aided by a tiny microphone she carries around that can pick up a whisper. Cochlear implants, however, are a controversial issue among some in the deaf community - in particular a movement called Deaf Culture which sees deafness not as a disease but rather as an identifying feature.

For them deafness is a condition to be celebrated. If science eradicates it, a way of life will die.

They see implantation as a threat to a deaf child's "birthright of silence."

"Like it or not the population of implantees is going to go up," Dr Cerf points out. The internet pioneer said deaf parents who had lost their hearing as they grew up were increasingly keen to have their children implanted to ensure the quality of life they remembered from their own youth.

"It's critical for them to have the implants early, because they learn speech in the first three years of life," he added.

The executive director of charitable trust The Hearing House, Anne Ackerman, said around 230 New Zealanders had cochlear implants, but there are fifty others currently on the waiting list waiting to undergo the $40,000 operation necessary to insert an electronic device above the ear.

The government only funds 24 operations a year and does not fund the intensive post operation training needed to make the operation worthwhile. Dr Cerf said the government had to get serious about the long-term benefits that come from doing more cochlear implant operations now.

"This country has set itself on a course to improve the economy. Taking care of people with this kind of disability costs a hell of a lot more over their lifetime than the cost of doing an implant now."

Dr Cerf, who grew up hard of hearing and wears hearing aids, is fascinated by the "computer-brain" connection the implants represent.

"It's the best example I've seen of electroneural technology. We can take that same understanding and pursue optical implants," he said. Further down the track, some 25 years away Dr Cerf estimates, implants will be used to route nerve signals around the damaged portions of the spine.

"There are at least two people that I know who have implants that allow them to get up and walk. They were paraplegics."

It may sound far-fetched, but then again, years ago, so did the internet.

©Copyright 2003, New Zealand Herald