Entries in Listening (2)


Deaf 10-Year-Old Regains Hearing with Cochlear Implant

ABC News(DALLAS) -- The sound of Sammie Hicks's own breathing moved her to tears three weeks ago.

That's because it was the first time she ever heard it.

"I started to cry because it was overwhelming," 10-year-old Sammie told ABC affiliate WFAA. "I had no idea what the sounds were."

Born with a genetic mutation that caused her to lose her hearing as a toddler, Sammie was fitted with a cochlear implant – a kind of bionic ear that simulates hearing – and documented the process in an online video diary over the past several months.

In a video posted Wednesday from her home in Collin County, Texas, Sammie mimes robot arms and flashes a braces-clad smile when her mother asks what the implants sound like to her. The implants don't exactly mimic hearing, so Sammie thinks voices sound like robots.

Unlike a hearing aid, which amplifies existing sounds, the cochlear implant is designed to directly stimulate the auditory nerve, bypassing the damaged part of the ear. First, an implant is surgically placed beneath the skin. Three weeks later, it is turned on and works with an earpiece to process sounds and stimulate the nerve.

"When a cochlear implant is turned on, people will hear things they've never heard before," said Dr. Jennifer Smullen, who has performed hundreds of implant surgeries at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. "It's like someone who really needed glasses, put them on and realized they were missing the sunset."

Hicks's new favorite activity is taking long walks outside so she can listen to the birds, her mother, Jenifer, told ABC News. Other sounds are more annoying, on the other hand, like the air conditioner and the sound of her classmates turning pages.

"She wasn't expecting school to be quite so loud," Jenifer said. "She can hear everyone eating their snacks and writing on paper. And she can hear them breathing."

Sammie's younger brother, 9, went deaf "rapidly" over the last two years and just had the same cochlear implant surgery, Jenifer said. His implants will be turned on June 7.

"When we brought him home from surgery, she broke down in tears because she knew what he was going through," Jenifer said. "She wouldn't leave his side."

In Wednesday's video diary entry, Jenifer asked Sammie if she had any advice for her brother.

"After it gets turned on, it's not going to be what you expected, of course," Sammie said. "If you jump around, the thing will fall off."

Sammie's brain learns how to process the information from the implants every day, Smullen explained. And as she learns, she'll update her video diary and share new sounds with the world.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Science Behind the 'Cocktail Party Effect'

Allan Danahar/Thinkstock(SAN FRANCISCO) -- It’s a familiar scene: you’re at a crowded party, but despite all the noise, you’re still able to make out the words of the one person with whom you’re talking.

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco studied this phenomenon, known as the “cocktail party effect,” and found it has both psychological and neurological components.  Their data is published in the latest issue of the journal Nature.

What happens from a neurological standpoint is that the sounds all enter the ear as one cacophonous roar, but the brain processes all the information and tunes into one sound, such as a person’s voice, and filters out the rest.

“The psychological component is that it’s a sound we want or need to hear, which is why we can tune into it,” said co-author Dr. Edward Chang, an assistant professor of neuroscience.

Chang and postdoctoral scholar Rima Mesgarani looked at this effect in three subjects who were undergoing treatment for epilepsy.  All three had normal hearing and were able to process speech normally.  The authors hooked the subjects up to electrodes and asked them to listen to two speakers, but only focus on one.

By measuring brain activity, they were able to determine what the subjects heard, and found that their brains responded to the targeted speaker.

This line of research is important, Chang said, because it can contribute to the understanding of how language processing is impaired in people with attention deficit disorder, autism, disorders involving the learning of language and deficits that occur as people get older.

“People with these disorders have problems with the ability to focus on a certain aspect of the environment,” Chang said.  “They can’t always hear things correctly.”

Understanding how the brain processes the human voice can also contribute to the development of new technologies that rely on voice recognition, the authors said in a university press release.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio