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Bionic Ear Lets 5-Year-Old Boy Hear Sounds for the First Time

An auditory brainstem implant, or bionic ear, lets a 5-year-old boy hear sounds, including his family's voices, for the very first time.

bionic ear
Five-year-old Caiden Moranis the fourth child to receive an auditory brainstem implant, or ABI, basically a bionic ear that is allowing him to hear sound for the very first time. Born without cochleas, the inner part of the ear that converts sound to nerve impulses and sends them to the brain, Caiden was profoundly deaf and communicated only with sign language—until he received his bionic ear in January as part of a clinical trial for kids aged 2 to 5 at Children's Hospital, Los Angeles, in conjunction with USC's Keck School of Medicine.

During Caiden's surgery, doctors implanted a microphone and transmitter on his head to convert sounds from the outside world into electrical signals, and implanted an internal receiver on the auditory part of his brainstem to receive those signals. The devices bypass the inner ear completely.

"By putting this electrode directly into the hearing centers of the brain, it actually is taking stuff and using the brain the way it's designed to work," said Dr. Mark Krieger, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children's Hospital, Los Angeles. "And the brain itself ... in a very young child, is able to grow and develop around this implant."

Though Caiden can now hear, he has years of work ahead of him to make sense of the sounds his brain is now processing and is attending therapy sessions several times a week to work on his speech and hearing.

"Imagine a newborn baby. It doesn't come into the world with the ability to understand what sound is, or that it should be meaningful," said Margaret Winter, an audiologist working with Caiden. "So over time, all the things we do with babies we'll be doing with children who have hearing aids or cochlear implants or ABIs."

Caiden has only been able to hear since March, when they activated his ABI, but he is already responding to sounds and making sounds of his own, showing what a brave and determined kid he is. I can't wait to see what Caiden will be able to do in a few more months!

Ellen Sturm Niz is a New York City-based editor and writer. Check out Ellen's new Etsy shop and follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.

Life with A Cochlear Implant