Editor’s note: According to a survey commissioned by Durham-based hearing solutions company MED-EL USA, voices of family members or partners was the sound most Americans (67%) would miss if they could no longer hear. Conversations with friends and loved ones was the highest mentioned (by 81%) everyday situation that would be affected by hearing loss. Here is one way to fight hearing loss: cochlear implants. 

A CI is an electronic medical device that replaces the function of the damaged inner ear (cochlea) to provide sound signals to the brain. CIs do not restore normal hearing, but instead give people who are deaf or severely hard-of-hearing useful representation of sounds in the environment and help them to understand speech, unlike hearing aids, which make sounds louder.

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

Survey: People with hearing loss miss sounds of family most – a Durham firm fights back

The device contains four parts: a microphone, which picks up sounds from the environment; a speech processor, which selects and arranges sounds picked up by the microphone; a transmitter and receiver/stimulator, which receive signals from the speech processor and convert them into electrical impulses and an electrode array, that collects the impulses from the stimulator and sends them to different regions of the auditory nerve.

Hearing through a CI is different from normal hearing and takes time to learn or relearn. However, it allows many people to recognize warning signals, understand other sounds in the environment and understand speech in-person or over the phone.

MED-EL’s Bonebridge implant system. MED-EL photo

CIs have been approved to treat hearing loss in adults by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since the mid-1980s. The FDA approved their use to treat eligible children, beginning at age 12 months, in 2000. Use of a CI by young children exposes them to sounds during an optimal period to develop speech and language skills. Research has shown that children treated early with a CI – before the age of 18 months – followed by intensive therapy are better able to hear, comprehend sound and music and speak than their peers who receive implants when they are older. Studies have also shown that eligible children who receive a cochlear implant before 18 months of age develop language skills at a rate comparable to children with normal hearing, and many succeed in mainstream classrooms, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), part of the National Institutes of Health. Approximately 324,200 CIs have been implanted worldwide. In the U.S., approximately 58,000 CIs have been implanted in adults and 38,000 in children, as of the end of 2012, the most recent data available from NIDCD.