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December 7, 2006

Earlier the better for cochlear implants

From: The Age - Melbourne,Victoria,Australia - Dec 7, 2006

Deaf babies and toddlers who are given a cochlear implant between the ages of six months and two years have a greater chance of developing normal language skills, according to Australian researchers.

University of Melbourne researchers found that babies who had a cochlear implant at six months of age were on par with normal hearing children in their language skills by the time they were two years old.

But those who were given an implant when they were two years old developed much more slowly.

Surgeon Robert Briggs from the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear hospital, in Melbourne, set up the study to demonstrate that it was worth giving the implants at a younger age.

"Internationally a number of centres were saying there was no need to implant children younger, that it didn't make any difference," Mr Briggs said.

"But our feeling was that they were clearly doing better.

"We set out to look at the outcomes in children under 12 months compared with the children who had been implanted a little later and so we're very pleased to see that it does demonstrate that the outcomes are better.

"That first 12 months is very important for hearing development ... it is the time when parents are vocalising and talking to their children."

He said the risk from surgery, such as adverse reactions to anaesthetic, was significantly lower once a baby was six months or older.

A cochlear implant is a small electronic device that can help to provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard-of-hearing.

The implant consists of an external portion that sits behind the ear and a second portion that is surgically placed under the skin.

Researcher Dr Shani Dettman said the research would have a huge impact on the lives of deaf children and their learning capabilities.

"What we found is that the children who received implants before 12 months of age had better language than the children who received implants between one and two years of age," Dr Dettman said.

"The most important time for developing communication skills is below 12 months of age. This is a critical period for language growth."

The inventor of the cochlear implant, Professor Graeme Clark, said the research findings had been a significant breakthrough.

"It's taken all that time and it's been a lot of hard work to get us to this stage, but it's wonderful to hear now that really basically all deaf children could really benefit from a cochlear implant," Prof Clark said.

"Only 20 years ago we were not able to diagnose a hearing loss in children under four years of age and now we're operating on children 12 months and younger. So it's all happening."

© 2006. The Age Company Ltd.