How Cochlear Implants Work

What is a cochlear implant? Cochlear implants are among the newest ways to help deaf people enhance whatever hearing they might have once conventional therapy and treatment can no longer help. These implants are especially popular for treating deaf children, who can learn to listen and communicate using only a small amount of residual hearing. However, they are not right for all deaf people, and there is some level of cochlear implant controversy. If you are considering cochlear implants, you should get all of the information before making a final decision. Here’s an overview of the cochlear implant and what it has to offer.

What is A Cochlear Implant?

You might ask yourself the question: What is a cochlear implant, really? At the most basic level, it is a sound amplification device, but it goes far beyond what you would expect from a regular hearing aid. The cochlear implant sits in your inner ear, within the cochlea. Not only does it acquire sound using a microphone, but it also processes and arranges that sound to give focus and priority to spoken words. It is not a replacement for the sense of hearing, but instead gives the user a way to recognize and interpret significant sounds in the environment, especially speech. These implants are intended for those who have very little hearing and who will not benefit from ordinary amplification.

Cochlear Implant Surgery

Cochlear implant surgery is a sophisticated medical procedure. In order for the cochlear implant surgery to be successful, one portion of the implant is placed behind the ear and the other is embedded beneath the patient’s skin. Cochlear implants are unique in that, in contrast to other forms of hearing aids, the implant directly stimulates the auditory nerve. This makes it possible for sounds “caught” by the implant to bypass any damaged areas of the ear as they are processed. Because of this, hearing with this kind of implant is not the same as sensory hearing. It is a skill that must be learned. Luckily, the implants have long lasting battery power and rarely need replacement.

Cochlear Implant Controversy

According to the most recent figures by the Food and Drug Administration, more than 200,000 people around the world have benefited from these implants in one or both ears. That includes 42,000 American adults and almost 30,000 children. But there is still some degree of cochlear implant controversy, and it has nothing to do with the complexity of getting the implant. Many in the deaf community are concerned that wide use of the implants further medicalizes the issue of hearing loss. As this happens, they argue, the deaf culture is marginalized and weakened since it is looked at as something to be corrected -- and ultimately, eradicated. They also worry that deaf education focused on the use of marginal hearing will weaken the tradition of sign language and manual communication.

Would you like to learn more about the cochlear implant? These resources can help.

Implant Info at the National Institutes of Health

Implant Info at the Food and Drug Administration

About Implant Surgery -- American Academy of Head and Neck Surgery

Implants at KidsHealth, by Nemours Children’s Hospital

Introduction to the Science of Implants at University of Texas-Dallas

Implant and Deafness Treatment Options at the Mayo Clinic

Acoustics of Implants at University of California-Irvine

U.S. Library of Medicine Encyclopedia Entry on Implants