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Deaf woman weeps at hearing family for first time

March 20, 2013 at 12:19 PM ET

Born deaf, Amy Barber and her family were told she wouldn't be able to restore her hearing through medical procedures due to her neurological hearing loss.

But as an adult, Barber decided she wanted to try a cochlear implant, after seeing videos of other people finding success with the electronic devices that are surgically installed.

In an emotional YouTube video going viral this week, the 26-year-old Barber can be seen hearing the voices of her parents and her 6-year-old son, Blake, for the first time.

“Can you hear my voice?” Barber’s father asks in the video, which aired on TODAY Wednesday.

Barber nods and smiles. She responds aloud and with sign language, “Feels so different.”

“Hi, Mom,” Blake says, and someone tells him to speak louder. “HI MOM,” he repeats, and this time, Barber definitely hears him.

Videos of Barber’s newfound hearing were posted online in the fall, but gained attention this week after appearing on the website Reddit.

Today, Barber’s family says she has been doing phenomenally well in the months after receiving her implant. She receives speech therapy twice a week as she is learning to hear for the first time in her life.

A cochlear implant is a two-part electronic device that does not make sounds louder like a hearing aid, but instead sends signals to the auditory nerve and partially restores hearing, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“It’s a pretty amazing technology,” said Dr. Michael Cohen, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. “For what you’re doing, which is taking a sense that is lost and replacing it with an electronic device, it works remarkably well.

“The vast majority who have cochlear implants feel that they develop significant benefits from them,” he said.

The implants are ideal for children born deaf or for adults who have lost hearing, he said. They are most commonly implanted in older adults with hearing loss. But their success varies by patient.

“It never completely replaces normal acoustic hearing,” or how a person would hear naturally, Cohen said. “But the technology has gotten good enough that it produces a signal that the brain can interpret as sound.”

Cohen said he would expect children born deaf to develop good speech and language after receiving an implant. In adults who developed normal language in childhood but suffered hearing loss later on, he said, the implant “gives them really very good hearing to the point where they can usually understand speech well.”

But for patients like Barber, who received an implant in adulthood after a lifetime of deafness, the expectations are more limited.

“You wouldn’t expect a 26-year-old who received cochlear implant who had never heard before to develop normal sounding speech or to necessarily understand speech perfectly,” Cohen said.

The implant can be helpful but might not necessarily replace the ways these patients have been communicating, like sign language. “It can be difficult to fully integrate into the hearing world,” Cohen said.

After age 6, the brain isn’t as good at managing new signals, so hearing from an implant isn’t usually as good in adults who have never before processed sound, he said.

“That patient will likely have the most difficult time benefiting from a cochlear implant,” Cohen said. “They can benefit, but it’s not like you flip a switch and they can hear perfectly.”

All patients need intensive speech therapy and several sessions with an audiologist to fine tune the programming of the device. A child born deaf might need therapy for several years after receiving an implant, Cohen said, while an adult who had already acquired normal language wouldn’t need that much.

As of December 2010, some 219,000 people in the world have received the implants, including about 42,600 adults and 28,400 children in the United States, according to a Food and Drug Administration statistic cited on the National Institute of Deafness and other Communications Disorders website.

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