Four-year-old William Wootton was born profoundly deaf, but thanks to cochlear implants fitted when he was about 18 months old, the Granite Bay preschooler plays with a keyboard synthesizer and reacts to the sounds of airplanes and trains, while still learning American Sign Language.
“He has done extremely well,” said William’s mother, Jody Wootton. “He really appreciates music and is learning to speak.”
First approved for adults in the 1980s, cochlear implants have been used by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. The implant bypasses most of our normal hearing process, electronically connecting a microphone directly to the cochlear, the structure in the inner ear that collects nerve signals from the ear and sends them to the brain.
But not all children respond as well as William to the implants. “Cochlear implants are very successful for some kids, but we don’t understand why some kids do well and not others,” said Professor David Corina of the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis.
Supported by a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, Corina and Lee Miller, associate professor of neurobiology, physiology and behaviour at UC Davis, are working to understand why some children respond better to the implants than others.
One idea is that areas of the brain that are not being used, such as the auditory cortex in profoundly deaf children, get taken over for other functions, such as visual processing.