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Medical Moment: Advancements in cochlear implants for the hard of hearing

Published: Mar. 23, 2022 at 3:51 PM EDT
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(WNDU) - A cochlear implant is a device that bypasses damaged portions of the ear and delivers sound signals directly to the hearing nerve.

People with hearing loss usually communicate through spoken language and can benefit from hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other assistive devices, as well as captioning. Over one billion young adults are at risk of permanent, avoidable hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices and by the year 2050, nearly 2.5 billion are projected to have some degree of hearing loss.

Now, new improvements in technology have made cochlear implants a viable option for many people. One woman in particular, has an implant that is producing life-changing results.

Toni Iacolucci struggle with her hearing started 25 years ago when a non-cancerous tumor blocked the hearing in her right ear. Then in 2006, she went to her son’s high school band concert and for that night, didn’t wear ear plugs.

“So, I was unplugged, and I went home that night, and it was, you know, I was having a hard time hearing,” Toni said.

Doctors don’t know why but one week later, the hearing in her left ear was gone. Shortly after, her son, Gian Stone, began to rise in the music world. He began producing songs for Arianna Grande, Justin Beiber, and the Jonas Brothers. Gian took his mom to the 2019 Grammy’s. Even with a hearing aid, Toni couldn’t hear music clearly.

“It was such a big part of his life. And I couldn’t be a part of it anymore,” Toni said.

“Hearing impairment is much more complex than just the idea of, oh, you know, you have a little problem hearing, let’s put a hearing aid in, and everything will be fine,” said Joseph Montano, a professor of audiology in clinical otolaryngology at Weill Cornell Medicine.

There are two types of hearing loss; sensorineural and conductive.

Sensorineural hearing loss happens when there is damage to the inner ear and is permanent, while conductive hearing loss happens when sound waves can’t reach the inner ear (which can be caused by the buildup of earwax or a punctured eardrum) and can be fixed with medicine or surgery.

Symptoms of hearing loss are very noticeable and should be taken seriously. Some signs that you should look out for are having trouble hearing over the phone, often asking people to repeat themselves, needing to turn up the TV volume so loud that people complain, and thinking that others seem to mumble

For years other options were out. Toni needed yearly MRI’s to monitor the tumor near her right ear, so she couldn’t go into the machine with a cochlear implant. But then, a new designed allowed the magnet in the device to twist and reorient when exposed to the magnetic field in the scanner.

Toni had the device implanted last January.

“Haley, can you talk to me? We turned it on. How does your voice sound to you?” Toni repeats herself, “We turned it on, how does your voice sound to you? Amazing!” she said.

Toni can be part of the conversation at a crowded family dinner and can hear and appreciate her son’s new songs. Toni’s son is nominated, once again, for a 2022 Grammy Award. Toni will be watching and listening to hear if his name is called... as a winner.

The FDA approved one MRI-compatible cochlear implant late in 2019, and several other FDA approved versions followed.

Meghan Spriggs, an audiologist and assistant clinical professor at UC San Diego Health Sciences, says, “One of the neat parts about continuous improvements to the cochlear implant technology is that the majority of the innovation is housed in the processor (external part), meaning that patients who underwent surgery years ago are able to access many of these latest features.”

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