'Hear' to Stay: Cochlear Implants for Babies? Oh My!

Welcome to the indistinguishable boundary between sci-fi and the real world, to a world in which technology lets blind children see and deaf children hear, where limbs can be replaced and where the bionic person runs in the Olympics. Such is the world brought to us, in part, by the cochlear implant. We were privileged to speak at the recent American Academy of Audiology (AAA) meetings in Anaheim, Calif. about language development. We learned just how far this technology has come and heard first hand about the expansive promise that these implants hold for our children.

Two to three children out of every 1,000 are born deaf. And fully 90 percent of these kids are born to hearing parents. That means that most of the deaf babies come into a home where parents are likely in shock and denial. Their baby looks like the kid next door and does all the things newborns do -- they even coo and gurgle. But their child is a little different because she cannot hear the sounds that she utters. With the guidance of professionals in their community, the parents quickly face two choices. They can learn sign language and can raise their baby within the deaf community, or they can opt for getting the baby -- yes, the baby-- cochlear implants. Today with the technology at their fingertips, many are choosing implants.

If you have seen babies with what looks like a large disk pasted on their heads behind one or both of their ears, you were likely seeing a baby sporting cochlear implants. Scary though it is to have your 12-month-old undergo anesthesia and surgery, the research suggests that parents who choose this route have children who become virtually indistinguishable from their hearing peers.

A quality of life survey on children 8 and 16 years old tells the tale. Loy et al. reported that children with cochlear implants learn to read, go to college, have friends, and have the same quality of life as their hearing friends. They even practice "selective deafness" when a parent tells the teen that he cannot go to the 9:30 viewing of Matrix 2.

The research also tells us unequivocally that the decision about whether to implant must be made quickly. There is a critical period for language acquisition -- meaning that language grows most rapidly in the first two years of life. Even implantation after 18 months yields less-positive outcomes than implantation in the first year. As children get older the positive effects of getting an implant decline. Shockingly, the specialists at this meeting suggested moving the age of implantation down to 9 months. Why wait?

So welcome to a whole new world where we can restore a child's hearing and give them the gift of language. What's next? In the not too distant future, we might repair a child's hearing at birth or give a blind child vision even before she leaves the hospital.

We do indeed live in amazing times. And as the AAA says, these advances are "hear" to stay!

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