Cochlear Implant

cochlear implant

A cochlear [kok-leerimplant (CI) is a surgically implanted electronic device that provides a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. The cochlear implant is often referred to as a bionic ear. It will not cure deafness or hearing impairment, but is a prosthetic substitute for hearing.

While cochlear implants restore physical ability to hear, this does not mean the brain can learn to process and distinguish speech if the recipient has passed the critical period of adolescence. As a result, those born profoundly deaf who receive an implant as an adult can only distinguish simple sounds, such as a ringing phone vs. a doorbell, while others who receive implants early can understand speech.

As of April 2009, approximately 188,000 people worldwide had received cochlear implants; in the United States, about 30,000 adults and over 30,000 children are recipients. The vast majority are in developed countries due to the high cost of the device, surgery and post-implantation therapy. A small but growing segment of recipients have bilateral implants (one implant in each cochlea).

The discovery that electrical stimulation in the auditory system can create a perception of sound occurred around 1790, when Alessandro Volta (the developer of the electric battery) placed metal rods in his own ears and connected them to a 50-volt circuit, experiencing a jolt and hearing a noise ‘like a thick boiling soup.’ In the United States, medical costs run from $45,000 to $105,000, which includes evaluation, surgery, hardware, hospitalization and rehabilitation. Some or all of this may be covered by health insurance. In the United Kingdom, the NHS covers cochlear implants in full, as does Medicare in Australia and Israel.

Much of the strongest objection to cochlear implants has come from the Deaf community, which consists largely of pre-lingually deaf people whose first language is a signed language. For some in the Deaf community, cochlear implants are an affront to their culture, which as they view it, is a minority threatened by the hearing majority. This is an old problem for the Deaf community, going back as far as the 18th century with the argument of manualism vs. oralism. Manualism is the education of deaf students using sign language and oralism being the education of deaf students using spoken language.

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