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
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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)
  • fernandoc-Che
    2/23/2015 - 01:47 p.m.

    I think that if you go three years or any time without any type of noise, once you hear a noise its going to be like wow, because I think it'd just be weird to go from not hearing to hearing, without the original process of it being done since you were a baby.

  • dianaz-Che
    2/23/2015 - 01:48 p.m.

    I think its really great that some children are able to hear with this technology. Although, alot of people that are deaf do not have the money to get the implant.

  • makaylar-Che
    2/23/2015 - 01:49 p.m.

    some people don't have money to have this implant into a babies ear plus they might be to young to have it plus there just now using it they have to see if it does work or not. might don't have money or people or still skeptical about it.

  • stephanieg-Che
    2/23/2015 - 01:51 p.m.

    I think its cool that a little girl can hear so she don't have to go through the troubles of being disabled her whole life. I think its cool that she is changing the a look for death people . if it works out it would help more tots be able to hear.

  • 5AdelleD
    2/23/2015 - 04:20 p.m.

    I am doing the examine the story for lessons we can learn from it option.
    We should not take normal everyday things for granted, like hearing. This three year old girl named Angelica Lopez was born without hearing. She went through surgery to implant a device so she hear. "She isn't going to be able to hear like a normal three year old but like a newborn baby" audiologist Laurie Einsburg said. We get to experience hearing everyday and we never realize how much we should be thankful for it.

  • FStephanie-Cas
    2/23/2015 - 08:22 p.m.

    I think that it is beautiful that she will be able to hear and speak one day. It's truly amazing what technology can do and how much it helps people, and the things we come up with over the years.

  • JM2001april
    2/24/2015 - 08:53 a.m.

    Technology hasnt been deployed on all deaf children because some famalies can't afford it. Surguries cost very large amounts of money and not everyone has that amount of money.

  • Omodolapo
    2/24/2015 - 11:20 a.m.

    I think Angelica Lopez is a very strong girl and i think the ABI should be tested on all young children once's they see the sign of them being deaf it will help reduce the rate of deaf kids and also i believe that in few years from now angelica will be able to hear very well it just takes some time.

  • hunter.mellinger64
    2/24/2015 - 12:48 p.m.

    It must be really scary to here noises for the first time in four years. If they used it on an adult would they continue using sign language, or will they adapt to hearing and start using words? You actually can go deaf from listening to loud music. If someone is exposed to loud noise over a long period of time, like every day, permanent hearing loss can occur. Temporary hearing loss can happen after you've been exposed to loud noise for any duration. If you have temporary hearing loss, you won't be able to hear as well as you normally do for a while, but it will soon go away.

  • TaylorHartman-Ste
    2/24/2015 - 01:17 p.m.

    It is very sad to hear about this child not ever being able to hear, and being a young child I bet it is truly a crazy experience to go through now being able to.

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