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Health Team

New Surgery at UNC Restores Man’s Hearing

Posted March 27, 2008 5:23 p.m. EDT
Updated March 27, 2008 11:26 p.m. EDT

— Cochlear implants have helped many people with severe to profound auditory loss to hear sounds and recognize speech, but  there were no other options if the electronic devices didn't work.

Now, doctors at UNC Hospitals are using an alternative way to help those patients.

Seven years ago, Watson Hale, 65, of Morehead City had bacterial meningitis.

“That took my hearing. My body temperature got up so high it burned my hair cells, and that's when I became deaf,” Hale said.

He'd hoped a cochlear implant would help him, but that depended on whether the snail-shaped cochlea could still function.

“His cochlea was not fine. He received a cochlear implant and it didn't work for him because of that,” said Dr. Craig Buchman, an otolaryngology surgeon at UNC.

Last summer, Buchman made Hale the first in a clinical trial to try a different implant that bypasses the cochlea, going straight to the hearing nucleus of the brain stem. During the procedure, electrodes are placed directly on the nucleus to stimulate it, Buchman said.

As with the cochlear implant, a cable is attached to a transducer under the scalp. On the outside, it's magnetically joined to a microphone and frequency controls.

Hale remembers the second it was turned on.

“I could hear immediately, sounds coming out of people's mouths, best I've heard in a long time,” Hale said.

It's an electronic sound – not crystal clear, but with that and lip reading, Hale's brain is learning to recognize words.

“When I hear the sounds and watch your lips, I can sometimes hear what you're saying,” Hale said.

The clinical trial is only available for adult patients, but Buchman says the technique may someday lead to help for children born without cochlea or without certain cochlear nerves.

UNC is one of two sites in the country conducting the trial. The other is in Los Angeles at the House Ear Clinic.