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Thursday, 18 October, 2001, 04:56 GMT 05:56 UK
Breakthrough for deaf children
Alice Hardie
Alice Hardie has had the implant fitted
Doctors have perfected a quick and relatively straightforward way to restore hearing to profoundly deaf children.

It has been possible for some time to restore hearing by inserting an implant into a part of the ear called the cochlea.

But now doctors at the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham have developed a way to insert the implant using keyhole surgery.

The procedure involves inserting the implant through a tiny 3cm cut behind the ear. It causes only minimal scarring and significantly reduces the risk of infection.

The child's hair can simply be pinned back while the operation takes place, and there are no stitches to remove afterwards.

Previously, the operation was only possible through a much larger incision in the skull, which left a noticeable scar.

World first

Sue Hardie
Sue Hardie says her daughter has made good progress
It is thought that two-and-a-half-year-old Alice Hardie is the first youngster in the world to undergo keyhole surgery to have the implant fitted.

Before the operation, Alice was profoundly deaf.

But Alice's mother Sue said she has since made tremendous progress.

"She can hear the phone ringing, and recognises it for what it is.

"The keyhole technique is fantastic. My daughter went down for surgery and she came back five hours later looking very much the same as she had done went she went down.

"In fact, we were only in hospital overnight. It was unbelievable.

"We now have every hope that Alice will be able to live a completely normal life, like her hearing brother, and go to mainstream school."

Acoustic signals

Cochlear implant
The cochlear implant is made of flexible silicone and titanium
The cochlea is the part of the ear which transforms acoustic signals into electric signals which can be understood by the brain.

The implant uses a microphone to pick up sounds, which are then passed to a speech processor, which is worn on the body like a Walkman.

This converts the speech into electronic signals which are then transmitted to a receiver implant implanted behind the ear.

A wire from this passes the signal into the inner ear and the cochlear nerve which carries it to the brain.

It restores limited but useful hearing to a meaningful level of 30 to 40 decibels.

The keyhole surgery technique has been developed by Professor Gerry O'Donoghue.

He said: "Cochlear implants give deaf children the gift of hearing but the more conventional incision was somewhat excessive.

"Technology now allows us to operate on younger and younger children, but at the same time we needed to develop a technique which reduced the psychological effects as well as the physical scarring, because this could often deter children or prospective parents from considering implantation as an option."

The new technique is known as the Nucleus 24. It lasts for about 60 years.

There are approximately 23,000 deaf children in the UK. Over 40,000 children and adults have cochlear implants world-wide.

See also:

20 Sep 01 | Health
Children will 'learn to hear'
25 Mar 01 | Health
Ear cells 'could restore hearing'
28 Jun 00 | Health
Hearing tests for all newborns
18 Jan 00 | Health
Hi-tech hearing aids free on NHS
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