Friday, June 4, 2010

Yeah, Stanford!

Go Stanford!

Last month, Stefan Heller and other researchers at the Stanford Medical School published a huge breakthrough in inner-ear stem cell research. Over the last few weeks the news has been all over: I've heard about it through the New York Times, through deaf networks, and through classes here on campus. The biology nerd in me finds it beyond cool, and I thought I'd post it here:

Though it may never directly affect me, Heller's research is unbelievably relevant to the process I am going through. When I was considering my implant, one of the questions I asked was about the status of recent stem cell research, and whether it would ever be a feasible alternative to a CI. This has always been one of my reservations about CIs: should I go ahead with a surgery that will likely destroy most, if not all, of the residual hearing in my cochlea, when there might be huge technological advances a few years down the road? Is it better to hold out?

My doctors' answer was no. If researchers like Heller ever make significant strides with stem cell therapy for deafness, clinical trials are at least ten years away. No sense in waiting for that, if a CI can help me here and now.

Of course, this stem cell research is not without its controversy. It brings up the Deaf objection that deafness is not a disease that needs to be "cured." To put it lightly, Deaf people find it offensive whenever hearing people dare tackle projects like this. As for what I think about that? Let's just say that it's suddenly become very complicated.


  1. Hello Rachel! I heard about your blog through a friend and it's really amazing! I have a few questions about the CI process. 1) Why is it a one way decision? Why can't a CI be removed? And 2) Why would the CI destroy the rest of your hearing?

  2. Hello -

    Thanks for reading my blog! To answer your questions:

    1) A CI is a surgically implanted device, so once it's inside your body it's there to stay - like a pacemaker or other prothesis (though those are more extreme examples). Yes, it would be theoretically possible to remove it if serious problems arose with the internal implant, but such removal would likely involve damage to the body tissue. Surgeons function under the assumption that this internal device is meant to last the rest of the patient's life.

    2) Since implanting the CI involves attaching metal electrodes to the cochlea (the coiled membrane that senses sound in your inner ear) in order to directly stimulate the auditory nerve, it quite effectively destroys most of the residual hearing (through tiny sensory hair cells) in the cochlea. The surgery is a one-way street. Once those hair cells are gone, replaced by electrodes, your only way of hearing is through the CI. Although some residual hearing might be left in that ear after surgery, it's not much. Without the external processor on my head, the truth is that I'm completely deaf.

    Feel free to email me if you have any more questions.