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May 18, 2004

Studies: Early implants aid deaf kids

From: Indianapolis Star - Indianapolis,IN,USA - May 18, 2004

Cochlear surgery in infancy may improve language skills later in life, doctors report.

By Lindsey Tanner
Associated Press
May 18, 2004

CHICAGO -- The earlier deaf children get cochlear implants, the more likely they are to speak and comprehend language normally later in life, new research suggests. In fact, some doctors say doing the surgery in infancy may produce the best results.

In one study, children ages 12 months to 3 years showed rapid improvement in understanding speech during the first year after receiving one of the electronic devices, with the best results in the youngest children.

In another study, 43 percent of children who got implants at age 2 had normal oral language abilities at ages 8 to 9, compared with 16 percent who got implants at age 4, University of Texas Southwestern Medical School researcher Ann Geers found.

Geers and other researchers say that very early childhood is an especially critical period in the development of language skills, during which children hear and imitate sounds around them.

Both studies appear in May's Archives of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, published Monday.

Cochlear implants, typically implanted in one ear, use electrodes to transmit sounds to the auditory nerve and brain, bypassing nonfunctioning parts of the ear. The electronic devices are approved for use in children as young as 12 months, but some doctors have begun implanting them in even younger children.

"Babies spend quite a bit of time hearing and experiencing all kinds of sounds and speech in order to learn to talk," said Dr. Nancy Young, an ear specialist at Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital.

The latest research did not look at whether putting implants in infants younger than one year yields better results than doing so at, say, 12 months or 18 months. And neither study looked at youngsters past age 9. But Geers said she believes waiting until after two years of age decrease the chances that a child will ever develop normal speech skills.

Of the 50 or so children who get cochlear implants yearly at the Chicago hospital where Young works, the youngest was a 7-month-old Chesterton, Ind., boy with inherited hearing loss who had the surgery in December.

The boy, Kevin Johnston, is now a babbling, cooing 1-year-old and tests show his speech skills are "right on target" for a child his age, said his mother, Cindy Johnston.

Johnston said it was "a no-brainer" to have Kevin's surgery so young. In the three-hour outpatient operation, a cochlear implant was installed in the baby's right ear.

Some activists for the deaf claim that the devices stigmatize deafness and are a repudiation of sign language, but the implants are becoming more accepted.

"Opposition is giving way to the perception that it is one of a continuum of possibilities for parents to consider," said researchers John Christiansen and Irene Leigh of Gallaudet University, a college for the deaf in Washington.

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