In Australia, most people have heard of the term “Cochlear Implant” as a ‘great Australian invention’. As a matter of fact, the actual invention took place in France in the late 1950s. However, it took another 20 years for a product to be properly developed. This was done by two teams simultaneously. One in Austria and one on our soil – right here in Australia. This Australian company was the first to make the product commercially viable and has become the global market leader. One would have done well to invest in shares of the Australian company in 1990. Today their stocks are up 2400%.
While commercial success is one thing – the improvement of quality of life for recipients is immeasurable. Cochlear implants were originally only used to treat profound deafness. Over the last decade, research and development have improved the quality and usability of cochlear implants immensely. Today, more people with hearing loss can benefit from this technology.
Let’s have a closer look at how it works
The ears really have only one task. ‘Hearing’ is to transform sound waves into electrical signals which the brain can interpret. The sound passes through the ear to the brain. This happens in the following order:
- Outer Ear and Ear Canal => 2. Middle Ear (ear drum and tiny bones – the ossicles) => 3. Inner Ear (Cochlear) => 4. Hearing Nerve => 5. Brain (destination of sound).
The actual ‘hearing’ happens in the inner ear – the cochlear. Physical soundwaves are received by the cochlear and tiny hair cells produce electrical signals which are then passed onto the nerve that connects the ears to the brain. When the cochlear slows down due to inner-ear related hearing loss the ear needs some help in doing this. This is mostly the case for industrial or age-related deafness. In those cases, hearing aids can work wonders. But for hearing aids to work well the cochlear still needs to be able to do the basic work. If the cochlear is too far damaged even the best hearing aids cannot increase the speech understanding and the clarity is missing. The cochlear has lost its ability to do the basic work of producing distinct electrical signals and the brain is only receiving distorted sounds. If this happens a person can experience severe frustration, isolation or even depression as communication becomes a nearly impossible task.
The Good News
A Cochlear Implant can take over some of the functions of the cochlear and improve the hearing significantly. This works by using a so-called sound processor (mostly worn on the ear like a hearing aid) and placing a tiny wire with electrodes in the cochlear which is connected via a magnet and antenna to the sound processor. These electrodes stimulate the hearing nerve directly and generate the electrical signals the cochlear used to produce. In this way, a person who lost their hearing completely may be able to regain the ability to communicate with ease. Obviously, this requires some thorough medical and audiological investigation before a procedure like this is performed. The results are astonishing. I’ve seen many people with less than 25% hearing come back to around 95% speech understanding – truly life-changing!