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What is a Cochlear Implant?
By Jennifer Petrie-Signore, PhD

More than two-thirds of students attending DePaul School for Hearing and Speech wear a cochlear implant (CI) to gain access to sound. But what exactly is a CI, and how does it allow a person with hearing loss to perceive sounds in the environment?
For individuals with profound hearing loss, a CI translates sounds from the world around us into electrical signals for the brain. A microphone transmits sound to a processor that filters the sound and sends it to the internal unit. The signal is then translated into an electrical impulse at one of 20+ electrodes in the cochlea. The key to making this delicate technology function is that it harnesses the natural topography of the cochlea, a small, snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. If you were to unroll the cochlea, you would find that the membrane in the base—the end attached to the bones of the middle ear—is narrow and stiff and responds best to high pitches. The other end is wider and flexible and responds best to low pitches and there exists a continuum in between these two points. Along the membrane, hair cells are displaced when sound waves vibrate the membrane and fluid within the cochlea. In turn, the hair cells send a location-specific signal to the brain, and this collection of frequency transmissions allows the brain to paint an auditory picture of the world. Because the CI electrode array uses discrete stimulation points along the cochlear membrane, it can mimic natural auditory stimulation and provide the brain with a representation of the full range of speech sounds.

For a very young child with hearing loss, a CI paired with intensive language training can result in listening and speaking skills that are on par with peers with typical hearing. But the key is providing intensive listening and spoken language education while the brain is the most receptive to learning language—from birth to around age three. While a CI does require specialized surgery, it provides an option for those with near-complete hearing loss to gain access to sound and develop spoken language.

For more Information, visit www.DePaulHearingAndSpeech.org.

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