Lucky few offered release from silent world

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The Independent Online
The invention of the "bionic" ear, an implantable device that allows the profoundly deaf to hear, has released hundreds of children from the isolation of a silent world. But only half those who could benefit are receiving the device, writes Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor. For the past eight years, doctors in Nottingham have been experimenting with a substitute for the human ear. By inserting tiny electrodes deep into the skulls of profoundly deaf children, they hoped to help them to hear.

Now, they have conducted world's largest study of the cochlear implant - the so-called bionic ear - which has shown that the device has transformed lives and brought new hope to families struggling to communicate with children cut off from normal contact.

Of the first 100 children to receive the device in the programme at Queens Medical Centre 30 per cent could hear and understand speech after the first year, rising to 97 per cent after four years. None would ever have spoken without the device, doctors said. All the children were using the device most or all of the time, indicating its importance to them, and half could communicate well enough to go to mainstream schools.

Experts presenting the results yesterday said they had surpassed all expectations. Professor Barry McCormick, an audiological scientist, said: "Parents say the moment when their child first responds to a sound is the most important day of their life."

He showed a video of a young boy startled by the first sound he had ever heard, after the operation to insert the device, and another, in which a three-year-old girl, who could communicate only in grunts, was later shown repeating with expression and feeling a story that was read to her.

The operation involves inserting fine electrodes into the semi-circular canals in the inner ear, which are attached to a receiver placed just under the skin behind the outer ear. A microphone fitted over the ear like a conventional hearing aid picks up sounds and sends them to a speech processor carried in the pocket or on the belt. There the sounds are converted into signals which are sent via the transmitter and the receiver under the skin to the electrodes which stimulate the nerves in the inner ear.

James Bolton, a garden designer from Gloucestershire, whose son, Frederic, 7, had the operation three years years ago, said the effect was immediate. "He was becoming increasingly difficult and frustrated because he couldn't communicate. That went within days. Since then, he has gone from strength to strength, to the extent that it is sometimes difficult to remember he is deaf. It is the most sensational gadget."

About 300 children a year are thought likely to benefit from the implants but only 160 get them. They are expensive, costing pounds 27,500 in the first year and pounds 50,000 over the next 10 years, because of the professional help and support the children need to learn to speak and understand. Gerry O'Donoghue, a surgeon with the Nottingham team, said: "It is as unethical to deny a child a cochlear implant as it would be to deny them a hearing aid."

Lord Ashley of Stoke, who was deaf for 28 years following a surgical accident, before receiving an implant four years ago, said the effect had been miraculous. Even though his hearing was not perfect he could pick up two of his favourite sounds - bird song and the click of snooker balls.