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High-tech ear implants offer new hope to profoundly deaf

Dennis Maceri shows patient Barbara Johnson which parts of the new Clarion Multi-Strategy Implant are worn externally

Doug Lynch heard normally until he was 26. Just a month before his wedding, however, he lost hearing in one ear due to an autoimmune disease. Eight months later, he lost hearing in his other ear in just a few hours. Depressed, he tried everything, including chemotherapy, to restore his hearing.

Today, Lynch can hold a normal conversation, answer questions and talk on the telephone, thanks to a state-of-the-art Cochlear implant he demonstrated at a public forum last week at USC University Hospital.

That device – the Clarion Multi-Strategy Cochlear Implant – is now utilized by Dennis Maceri, associate professor of otolaryngology and a head and neck surgeon, making USC one of the few places in Southern California where the technology is available. “This is cutting-edge technology and the closest sound simulation of any device I’ve seen,” Maceri said. “It is specifically for people who have such severe impairments that they have little or no benefit from a hearing aid.”

The new technology, he said, could benefit many of the estimated 2 million adults in the U.S. who are profoundly deaf. One out of every 1,000 children is born deaf – and the new technology will work for them as well, Maceri said. “We usually wait until age 3 or 4 to implant, because the mastoid bone grows until then, but even that number is coming down,” he said.

Cochlear implants have been around since the 1960s. Unlike hearing aids, which are external devices that merely make sounds louder, the implant is an electronic device that is surgically implanted in the ear itself. The device bypasses damaged parts of the ear to stimulate the hearing nerve by sending electrical “sound” signals directly to the hearing nerve. “It doesn’t change the underlying problem that makes a person deaf, but it circumvents that problem,” said Maceri.

It can even be implanted in people who have had hearing impairments since birth as long as they have a functioning auditory nerve, which extends from the cochlea to the brain.” The Clarion device consists of surgically-implanted and externally-worn components. The external components include a speech processor (usually worn on the belt like a pager), a headpiece (worn just behind the ear) and a thin cable that connects the two units.

Patients with the implant can swim, shower and do everything normally – except have an MRI scan, said Maceri.

What makes the new version of the implants so exciting, said Maceri, is the computer technology inside a chip in the implant. The new device provides patients with more than four times the amount of auditory information available in other Cochlear implants, and because it stimulates all locations of the cochlea simultaneously, “it more closely approximates the normally functioning ear,” he said.

Bi-directional telemetry permits testing of the electrode in the operating room. Previously, patients had to wait six to eight weeks after surgery to see if the implant was working properly.

“This is something that’s not in the future – it’s now,” said Maceri.

High-tech ear implants offer new hope to profoundly deaf

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