When hearing is lost, so is a person’s connection to the outside world. Although technology can help restore that lost connection, too many people are still not receiving the help they need.
It's a small miracle that a process as complex as hearing can even be partly replaced by a technical device. Yet modern cochlear implants (CIs) have come a long way since the earliest models, which just transmitted noise. Today‘s implants transmit speech very well and can even make listening to music a pleasure.
To understand exactly how a CI works, you need to be aware of every step in the hearing process. First of all, sound waves make the eardrum vibrate. This vibration is transmitted via fine bones in the middle ear, which are called ossicles, to the liquid in the hollow space inside the cochlea, a spiral-shaped tube in the inner ear.
As soon as there is movement in the liquid, the tiny sensory hair cells that cover the cochlea’s inside wall begin to move – rather like seaweed swaying in harmony with the waves. The hair cells are connected to the auditory nerve on the other side of the cochlea’s wall. At this point, the movementinformation becomes an electrical impulse, which is then conducted along the auditory pathway all the way to the brain cortex. This is where we eventually interpret the information as sound.
“Our mission is better quality of life for hearing-impaired people – especially children.”MED-EL's CEO Dr Ingeborg Hochmair
Hearing impaired people treated with cochlear implants
According to an estimate by the World Health Organization, around 33% of people over the age of 65 are affected by hearing loss, but it also affects 7% of younger adults and 2% of children worldwide. 80% of those who are affected by hearing loss live in low-income countries.
When hearing goes wrong
There are a lot of stages in the hearing process and many points at which it can be interrupted. Regardless of where this happens, the result can range from a little hearing loss to complete deafness. If the eardrum is damaged or the ossicles are unable to move, sound waves can’t reach the inner ear. Very often this conductive hearing loss is only temporary and can usually be treated well. But if the sensory hair cells inside the cochlea stop working, for example because they have been broken due to loud noise, irreversible sensorineural hearing loss occurs.
Another type of hearing loss, which is rare but serious, is neural hearing loss. This happens when the auditory nerve is damaged or completely missing and the brain simply gets no signal from the ear at all.
When hearing is lost, so is a person’s connection to the outside world. Even moderate hearing loss can get in the way of a good social life – for instance, conversations become difficult, and going to the cinema or the theatre becomes frustrating rather than fun. The more severe the hearing loss, the more dependent a person becomes on others and the more likely it is that their quality of life will suffer.
Raising awareness for an even brighter future
Many people with hearing loss still don’t have an implant. This is partly because financial resources are scarce in many countries, but partly because of a general lack of awareness about how much life can be transformed by being able to hear again. For very young children, in particular, hearing loss – or simply never having been able to hear – can have a huge impact on development. MED-EL wants all children with hearing loss to have access to an implant before they are five years old.