Girl may get to hear for the first time Angelica Lopez, 3, smiles during a therapy session at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Angelica was born deaf and received an auditory brainstem implant to allow her to hear some sounds (AP photos)
Girl may get to hear for the first time
Lexile

At age 3, Angelica Lopez is helping to break a sound barrier for deaf children.

Born without working auditory nerves, she can detect sounds for the first time and start to mimic them after undergoing brain surgery to implant a device that bypasses missing wiring in her inner ears.

Angelica is one of a small number of U.S. children who are testing what's called an auditory brainstem implant, or ABI. The device goes beyond cochlear implants that have brought hearing to many deaf children but that don't work for tots who lack their hearing nerve.

When the ABI is first turned on, "she isn't going to be hearing like a 3-year-old. She'll be hearing like a newborn," audiologist Laurie Eisenberg of the University of Southern California tells parents. She outlined the research at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The children don't magically understand and use those sounds.

"It's going to take a lot of work," Eisenberg cautioned.

Angelica cried when her ABI was first switched on, scared by the sounds. But five months later, her mother says the youngster uses sign language to identify some sounds that was a cough, that's a dog barking. And she's beginning to babble like hearing babies do, as therapists work to teach her oral speech.

"It's just so awesome to hear her little voice," said Julie Lopez of Big Spring, Texas, who enrolled her daughter in the study at USC, where researchers say she's progressing well.

Many children born deaf benefit from cochlear implants, electrodes that send impulses to the auditory nerve, where they're relayed to the brain and recognized as sound. But the small fraction born without a working hearing nerve can't make that brain connection.

The ABI attempts to fill that gap by delivering electrical stimulation directly to the neurons on the brainstem the nerve normally would have targeted. Here's how it works: The person wears a microphone on the ear to detect sound, and a processer changes it to electrical signals. Those are beamed to a stimulator under the skin, which sends the signals snaking through a wire to electrodes surgically placed on the brainstem.

The Food and Drug Administration approved the device in 2000 specifically for adults and teenagers whose hearing nerves had been destroyed by surgery for a rare type of tumor. It doesn't restore normal hearing, but can help to varying degrees.

Then about a decade ago, an Italian surgeon started trying the ABI in deaf children, whose younger brains are more flexible and might better adapt to this artificial way of delivering sound.

Now, spurred by some successes abroad, the first U.S. studies in young children are underway at a handful of hospitals. Hearing specialists are watching the work closely.

There are children "who are not being helped in any other way," said Dr. Gordon Hughes of the National Institutes of Health, which is funding Eisenberg's study. And cochlear implants proved "there's a critical time window when the brain is very receptive to auditory stimulation and can develop speech communication in ways that are surprisingly good, if the stimulation is started early enough."

The studies are small, each enrolling 10 to 20 children. Ages vary; the Los Angeles study will implant starting at age 2, while some others try earlier. Children then receive intensive therapy, to learn to hear.

The studies must prove safety, since the ABI requires delicate brain surgery in healthy children.

"We're talking about real surgery to go into a deep area of the brain," said Dr. Marc Schwartz, a neurosurgeon with the House Clinic and Huntington Medical Research Institutes in Los Angeles, who is part of the USC study. "This is a precise operation that requires exacting technique."

In skilled hands, complications appear rare, said Robert Shannon, a USC professor of otolaryngology who helped develop the device. Post-surgery, stimulator complications can include non-auditory sensations such as tingling of the face or throat.

Critical thinking challenge: Why hasn't this technology been deployed with all deaf children?

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COMMENTS (42)
  • faithd-Che
    2/23/2015 - 11:48 a.m.

    Why hasn't this technology been deployed with all deaf children?

    Some deaf children's families don't have the finances to actually invest in the technology. Insurance probably won't cover the costs of the surgery.

    • daytond-Old
      2/23/2015 - 01:08 p.m.

      From all these things you listed i would give up smelling, i would give up smelling because without smelling i still could live life like i usually do. And do things that i love the most in life.

      This technology has not been realised to all deaf children because allot of parents can not afford it, so they do not put this object on there market since allot of people cant afford it and non one will buy it. if it was my opinion i would realise this technology cause it could make so many kids have a better life

    • treyb-Che
      2/23/2015 - 01:53 p.m.

      I all deaf children or there gave deaf need to have surgery to got there haer back or gave them invest in the technology. in some don't the insurance to pay for the surgery.

  • MikaylaStazewski-Ste
    2/23/2015 - 12:23 p.m.

    It is a great thing when someone who is deaf is able to hear for the first time. It is a whole new world. But, at the same time the whole concept is creepy; it's like she is being reborn or something.

  • danay-Old
    2/23/2015 - 01:02 p.m.

    Why hasn't this technology been deployed with all deaf children?

    If the ABI were to be for free, the reason it hasn't been deploy to all deaf children is because some Government would take advantage of this technology and make a profit out of it. It's all about the money.

    Even if I did cost money, this is something new and it will cost you quite a lot. Some families will not be able to afford it due to poverty or financial draw backs.

    If I were to lose one of my sense, it would be smell. I do get introduce to many wonderful aroma in the world but I think it's the least important for me in this case. Sure if it were to happen to me, it would be devastating but it's not as bad as losing sight or feeling.

  • taylora1-Old
    2/23/2015 - 01:03 p.m.

    Why hasn't this technology been deployed with all deaf children?

    A lot of people sometimes can't afford these things. Honestly they should give this technology to all deaf children regardless, because they need it and they need it now. they shouldn't just give this technology to the people that can afford it they should give it to everyone who needs it. The sense i would give up would be my hearing so that way i would hear any insults that are directed towards me.

  • garyh1-Old
    2/23/2015 - 01:06 p.m.

    For me, i will give up smell. The other 4 senses are more important for me. I think smelling is not necessary for me, it doesn't have any problems for me if i give up smelling.

    This technology could be used on every deaf children, but this technology is quite expansive for some family. They could not afford it.

  • danielb1-Old
    2/23/2015 - 01:06 p.m.

    One must assume that due to the fact that neither me nor my classmates have heard of this procedure that it is not the most common or well known thing. That being said I am sure that it may be well known in some circles revolving around the hearing impaired because it affects them more than it would us. That's not to say that its not important just that it may be acknowledged in those circles more than they are in mine. Upon request of my teacher I will expand upon what sense I would give up if I had to chose one. I suppose I would chose the sense of smell due to the fact that it would be the least debilitating of the five.

  • kylen1-Old
    2/23/2015 - 01:08 p.m.

    Why hasn't this technology been deployed with all deaf children?

    I think that this technology hasn't been deployed with all deaf children for two major reasons. The first being finances; many parents might not be able to afford such technology or surgery and the government providing the service could put quite a strain on taxes. The second reason being that this hasn't been proven 100% safe yet, and might never. Delicate and potentially life-threatening surgery done on perfectly healthy, young children isn't exactly an appealing idea to anyone, be it parent or bystander.

    Also, if you had to give up one of your senses (hear, taste, touch, smell, sight) which one would it be and why?

    I would give up smell. Although I find this to be important and have major drawbacks, I still believe to this to be the least consequential. I personally do not enjoy the sense of smell very much and as for drawbacks such as not being able to smell toxic chemicals, I could always rely on someone for that. Not just that, but restoring the sense of smell could quite potentially be the easiest and least risky main sense to restore. Also for what I would like to be my future job, an author, the sense of smell is least consequential, too. Losing something like sight or sense of touch would be destructive, but smell isn't as bad. What a character smells is not mentioned too often in fiction and when it is it is used as a metaphor about 50% or more of the time.

  • tyrekb-Che
    2/23/2015 - 01:45 p.m.

    This is a great thing to see that a child can finally hear after awhile. They should have created this for all of the deaf children in the world.

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