Runner up of the 2016 UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing, Gemma Macaulay-Black, shares the story behind the world-changing invention of the cochlear implant.
Imagine that you have never heard the sound of your own voice. Your whole life has been turned on mute, with little to no sound. Then imagine that one day you could suddenly hear the world around you.
Life without sound is a reality for an estimated one million Australians suffering from some form of hearing loss. A cochlear implant (sometimes called a bionic ear) offers the hope of regaining or restoring a sense of sound to those with severe or profound hearing loss. In other words, it can provide the sensation of hearing to adults and children who either can’t hear at all or can hear only very little.
You may wonder why those affected by hearing loss need a cochlear implant instead of a hearing aid. This is because hearing aids make sounds louder, whereas cochlear implants turn sounds into electrical signals. It’s useless making sounds louder when the ear isn’t receiving sound because when the ear doesn’t receive sound, it doesn’t transmit signals to the brain – hence no hearing occurs. The cochlear implant works on this form of hearing loss because the implant receives the sounds and changes them into electrical signals. It then sends the electrical signals along the auditory nerve to the brain and the sounds can be realised. Although a first-time user of the implant will have difficultly interpreting the electrical signals, this will improve as they use the implant throughout their lifetime.
The reason for inventing a hearing device for the severely and profoundly deaf stemmed from a young Graeme Clark, watching as his deaf father struggled with the annoyance and desire for a deeper connection, and the isolation that came with his inability to hear. Clark became a professor, and was working as an ear surgeon in Melbourne, Australia when he stumbled across a scientific paper written by Blair Simmons, describing how a deaf person with little to no hearing could receive the sensation of hearing through electrical stimulation. The science wasn’t exact but it got the ball rolling. In 1967, Professor Clark and his team began working on the cochlear implant. Many doubted a team dedicated to research and development could produce a usable product, but over a decade later their persistence paid off. In 1978, the first cochlear implant surgery took place – and it was a success.
Many people have been benefitted by the invention of the cochlear implant, and it is used worldwide to help severely and profoundly deaf people connect with the sounds and people around them. These people are still deaf, but while wearing the implant, they can hear everything around them and are able to look after themselves in a world focused on sound. The cochlear implant is now being used on infants, whose are able to grow up communicating and enjoying themselves, and lead a life virtually uninterrupted by hearing loss. Both these abilities are vital in childhood and are needed to learn and grow as a person.
As you may imagine, when the cochlear implant is first turned on, people’s reactions can be invaluable. Take Beverly Biderman, for example. By the age of 12, she was completely unable to understand speech. That all changed when Beverly was first implanted as a grown woman and sounds surrounded her. Until then she had no idea that plastic rustled and water dripped. Beverly took a language immersion course and started connecting sounds to their meanings. She listened to Make way for Ducklings many times, and then began to understand. The cochlear implant gave Beverly a way of discovering things she’d never dreamt of, such as her own Texas accent. This has been a miracle for her and others like her.
The reactions people experience when they first hear sound are remarkable. Many children hide their heads in their hands when they realise how loud their laughter is. The simple joy in discovering sound is one that should be shared to those who can’t experience it naturally. We must share the gift of hearing with everyone.
All in all the cochlear implant was, and still is, an amazing invention. Today people use them frequently to improve their quality of life. The technology behind the implant is being reviewed and modified to adjust to our changing world, making changes easier for the severely and profoundly deaf to process, especially changes in the way we hear. Graeme Clark achieved his goal of restoring a sense of hearing to those without it, and he continues to watch his invention benefit many people around the world today, as it will in the future. This was truly an innovation in the world of science.
– Gemma Macaulay-Black
Year 8, Frensham
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Click here to read the winning entry.