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Cochlear Implants: What are They?

By Krista Elliott

When our senses all work as they are supposed to, we can easily experience the rich sensory input of the world around us. The colors, sounds and smells of nature are ours to experience. However, for those who are hard of hearing or deaf, the sounds of nature and the world around them can be elusive. 

There are a multitude of options for people who experience auditory issues. For some, hearing aids provide the volume boost needed to keep hearing at the desired level. Others are proud members of the deaf community and communicate using beautiful and expressive sign language. And for others still, a cochlear implant is the option that works best. 

But what is a cochlear implant and how does it work? 

Anatomy of a Cochlear Implant

A cochlear implant is an electronic device consisting of four parts: A microphone, a speech processor, a transmitter and receiver, and an electrode array. Part of the implant is inserted into the cochlea (the part of the inner ear shaped like a snail shell), part of it is inserted just under the skin, behind the ear, and part of it is external, also sitting behind the ear. 

But How Does It Work?

When you think of the brain, and how it works, all information that our brain receives is just electrical impulses sent through our nerves. As it turns out, the implant works in much the same way. It doesn't restore hearing, but it turns sound into electrical signals that are then sent to the auditory nerves, where the brain translates them into information about what the wearer is "hearing."

It can take time for the person's brain to learn to translate sounds correctly. As an example, let's say someone lost their hearing as an adult and then received an implant. They see a dog barking. Their brain may translate the electrical signals from the implant to sound more like a duck quacking. But based on the visual input, the brain will soon learn to translate that specific electrical signal correctly, and eventually, the brain will "hear" a sound that is more similar to how a hearing person would hear a dog barking. 

When implants are inserted into children who are born deaf, the learning process is a bit different. These children receive intensive therapy to develop hearing and speech at the same time, relying on multiple forms of information to train their brain to translate specific electrical impulses into the sounds of words. They may hear voices very differently than we do, but they often wind up functioning easily among hearing people. 

Cochlear implants do not work perfectly for everybody, but for young children and people with recent hearing loss, they can provide significant aid in navigating the sounds in our world. And that's sweet music to their ears. 

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