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March 2008 Issue

UC graduate student Jennifer Hearn listens to her MP3 player as she reviews class material. Although deaf, Hearn had her hearing restored thanks to cochlear implants placed in both ears by Ravi Samy, MD.
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Cochlear Implants Never Sounded So Good for Neuroscience Student

Published March 2008

Jennifer Hearn regularly listens to piano compositions and foreign language recordings on her MP3 player. She does it because she not only enjoys them, but because they help her do something she hasn't been able to do for years-hear.


That's because Hearn is deaf.


Hearn, a neuroscience graduate student, was diagnosed with moderate hearing loss at age 3. By the time she was 13, she had profound hearing loss.


"I wore hearing aids for a while," says Hearn. "But I couldn't hear very much and I didn't have very high speech recognition."


She attended traditional schools except for one semester in high school when she attended a school for the deaf to learn American Sign Language (ASL). Hearn learned to lip read and pay attention to body language to communicate with others.


"I developed more logic and thinking skills at a young age to compensate for my lack of hearing," she says.


As an undergraduate at the University of Southern Mississippi, Hearn published and presented on the topic of deafness with an emphasis on auditory hallucinations and misdiagnosis in the mental health field. She became particularly interested in how deafness affects the brain and decided to become a neuroscientist to further her research interests.


That desire brought her to UC to work with Scott Holland, PhD, professor of pediatrics and radiology and director of the Pediatric Brain Imaging Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.


Holland and his team are using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to predict deafness in infants and to determine if a child would benefit from a cochlear implant.


A cochlear implant is a small, complex electronic device implanted in the inner ear and activated by a device worn outside the ear. It bypasses the damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulates the auditory nerve, which sends signals generated by the implant to the brain to recognize sound.  


The fMRI scans reveal the anatomy of the cochlea (the hearing organ) and other structures and shows activation of the areas responsible for auditory detection, speech perception and language processing. 


Holland and his team are correlating pre-implant brain activation patterns revealed by fMRI with hearing performance two years after cochlear implantation. 


Cochlear implants are something Hearn knows well-she got an implant in one ear four years ago but it stopped working after one year.


"I was struggling during that time," says Hearn.


"I spent more time trying to ignore the poor sound quality from my ear that had a hearing aid than making use of the good sound quality from the ear with the implant.


"I want to function normally as a successful scientist, and maximizing every communication modality possible is one way I can do that.


"Unfortunately ASL vocabulary doesn't extend into the upper level sciences so ASL interpreters can't help me as much as a scientist."


Hearn, who says she's "not one to easily give up," decided the next step for her was to get implants in both ears.



A New Sound

In December 2006, Ravi Samy, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology and director of the adult cochlear implant program at UC, removed Hearn's damaged cochlear implant from her left ear and placed new implants in both ears. 


Ten days later, she returned to class.


"When you first get implants, you're bombarded with all these different sounds that you've never really heard before and you can't really describe," says Hearn.


Samy says cochlear implant recipients need to train their brain how to listen.


"The sounds created by a cochlear implant are not the same as normal hearing," Samy says.


"A patient's success is based on many factors, including how long they have been deaf, whether they were deaf before they could speak, how old they are when they get the implant, and how motivated they are among other things."


Hearn decided to train herself how to hear by listening to music and foreign language recordings.


"I began by listening to complex musical compositions which sounded horrible to me," she says.


"So I began listening to simpler piano solos. Once I was able to identify the different sounds I went back to the complex music-all of the sudden, I could hear all the various components of the music."


Hearn progressed to listening to foreign language recordings and focused on those that emphasize consonants instead of vowels.


"Listening to a foreign language prevented me from using my logic because I had to listen to every part of the word and mimic that," Hearn says.


"It helped me distinguish pitches that were similar which helped me with the English language as well."


Hearn says the implants have increased her confidence in speaking because she can hear herself talk now. Her confidence as a student has also increased because she can hear others, although she experiences an acclimation period whenever she hears new sounds.


"When I hear someone speak for the first time, it may take me 15 to 20 minutes to adjust to their pronunciation, annunciation and their accents."


Accents are something Hearn now gets excited about.


"It's so much fun to guess where someone is from based on their accent. I couldn't really hear it before but now I can," she says.



Deafness as a Science

Hearn says that her personal experience as a deaf scientist provides her with a unique intellectual and bio-psychosocial perspective in deafness-related studies.


"I hope to continue utilizing my experience as I pursue a deeper understanding of and contribute to the growing body of knowledge on the neurobiology of deafness. I'm proud to be working with the scientists at UC and Cincinnati Children's studying cochlear implants-they're really top-notch."


 Samy, along with Holland and Daniel Choo, MD, assistant professor of pediatric otolaryngology, will soon begin research using fMRI in adults to predict who will do well with cochlear implants.


In addition to that research, UC has been selected as one of a handful of otolaryngology centers in the country to study an experimental cochlear implant as part of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration clinical trial.


"This implant has shorter electrodes than a regular cochlear implant and is only inserted into a portion of the cochlea which may be beneficial for those whose hearing loss is limited to higher frequencies," says Samy.


He says this type of implant may help those patients who have limited improvement with hearing aids but are not ready for a full cochlear implant.


He expects the research to begin in the next six to 12 months.

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