LEARNING TO HEAR
Muse Science Magazine for Kids|May/June 2021
With cochlear implants
Melissa L. Weber

When Elexis Blake was an 8-month-old baby, her grandmother noticed something unusual. Elexis didn’t seem to notice sounds, like a dog barking.

“She shook a jar full of pennies behind my head,” says Elexis, now 25. “I didn’t turn. But I was very interested in the jar when she showed it to me.”

Her family took Elexis to an audiologist (a medical specialist who can test for hearing problems). The audiologist told her parents that she was profoundly deaf in both ears.

When Are Hearing Problems Diagnosed?

Most babies get a hearing check soon after they are born. If the test detects hearing problems, parents are told to visit an audiologist for more tests.

When Elexis had her first hearing test, the doctor may have thought that her results would improve in time. That was not the case.

“My mom was sad that I couldn’t hear,” says Elexis. “She went to the library, got American Sign Language (ASL) books, and started signing with me at 8 months old.”

Her mom even took classes at a nearby university and became a sign language interpreter.

Language and the Brain

Babies who can hear start learning spoken language before they’re even born! The part of the brain that makes sense of sounds and language is called the auditory cortex. It’s connected to the auditory nerve. Kids and teens learn languages more easily and rapidly than adults. Researchers believe that the language area of the brain fills with visual information if children don’t learn spoken words.

Words are important. Words help people understand the world around them and connect with others. While Elexis was learning the words of sign language, her family wanted to know about other ways to help her.

One option was a cochlear implant.

A What Kind of Implant?

A cochlear implant is a small electronic device with two parts. From the outside, it looks a bit like a headphone attached to the side of the head. This transmitter collects sounds and sends them to a receiver that a surgeon places under the skin—near the cochlea. Thin wires carry sounds from the receiver to tiny electrodes inside the cochlea. These electrodes stimulate the auditory nerve and send signals to the brain. The part that sits behind the ear can be disconnected when the person goes swimming or takes a shower.

The implant doesn’t give a Deaf person normal hearing, according to Heather Hudak, an audiologist in Akron, Ohio.

“A cochlear implant gives a mechanical representation of sounds,” she says. Cochlear implants stimulate the auditory nerve and send signals to the brain. Hearing through a cochlear implant takes time to learn. A child with a cochlear implant must be taught to understand what sounds mean.

Studying Speech and Sound

Babies with cochlear implants don’t pay attention to sounds the way a child with normal hearing does. Parents and other caregivers need to learn to help their baby pay attention to sounds.

“The most important thing is building social interaction,” says researcher Derek Houston. He has been studying speech and cochlear implants with families for nearly 20 years and leads a research lab at Ohio State’s Eye and Ear Institute.

HOW DOES HEARING WORK?

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