My Bionic Ear

Human Wonders

by Dr. Georgia Purdom on January 1, 2012
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Truth or science fiction? If your ear stops working, you can send electrical signals directly to the brain. True! Cochlear implants do just that. Our brains are so marvelously versatile that they can decode electrical “noises” from any source, even a manmade machine.

On April 17, 2010, the world again became a very noisy place. It was the day the electronic device behind my ear, called a cochlear implant, was first turned “on.”

For over twenty years, my hearing had been progressively declining. I could not hear birds sing, crickets chirp, or my young daughter whisper. Hearing aids weren’t enough. I couldn’t even do the simplest things, like having a conversation in a restaurant or talking on the phone. They were nearly impossible.

When I was a child, my ears functioned normally. They faithfully performed the incredible task of translating sound waves into electrical signals, then sending them to my brain. First, the outer ear collected the sounds and directed them to an amplifier in the middle ear. These vibrations then moved to the inner ear, or cochlea, where the biggest miracle occurred. The wiggling of microscopic “hairs” sent a series of electrically charged particles (ions) through molecular-size trapdoors. This stream of electrical impulses traveled up the auditory nerve to the brain.

As I grew older, this intricate system broke down. But my new electronic gizmo, the cochlear implant mentioned earlier, has bypassed the ear entirely and sends an electrical signal directly to the auditory nerve. The internal portion of the device, implanted under the skin behind the ear, connects to an electrode. The electrode threads through the cochlea, connecting directly to auditory nerve fibers.

The external portion, called the processor, sits over the ear and connects to the internal portion via a magnet. Sound is received by the processor and converted to electrical signals. The signals travel through the internal portion to stimulate the auditory nerve. This information is sent to the brain. I think that this step is amazing, because the signals initially arrive as a batch of electrical signals unlike anything the brain has ever received before. But it is able to quickly recognize patterns and interpret the new signals as sound.

Most common sounds, which other people take for granted, I relish hearing. From the turn signal in my car to my daughter’s laughter, I enjoy hearing every minute of it. Scientists will never be able to replicate God’s amazing design. However, I am extremely thankful for the God-given intelligence that produced the cochlear implant, allowing me to hear again.

Dr. Georgia Purdom is a speaker and researcher for Answers in Genesis. She earned her doctorate from Ohio State University in molecular genetics and spent six years as a professor of biology at Mt. Vernon Nazarene University. Dr. Purdom is also a member of the American Society for Microbiology and American Society for Cell Biology.

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