Jan 2018 Chicago Tonight WTTW and Medical Xpress

Brain MRIHearing is a vital part of learning language. Important for a child’s speech development, it also influences literacy skills. For children born with significant hearing loss, listening and language ability are boosted by a cochlear implant. “The literacy of deaf children on average in the era before cochlear implants was fourth grade, which is not functional literacy,” said Dr. Nancy Young, ­­medical director of audiology and cochlear implant programs at Lurie Children’s Hospital and Northwestern University professor.

While cochlear implants have improved language learning in deaf children since being approved by the FDA in 1991, some still lag behind their normal hearing peers. Researchers are hoping to bridge that gap with the help of a new tool. In a recent study, it was able to predict language learning in deaf children after they received a cochlear implant. “The ability to predict language development is important because it allows clinicians and educators to intervene with therapy to maximise language learning for the child,” said Patrick C. M. Wong, a cognitive neuroscientist, professor and director of the Brain and Mind Institute at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, in a press release. “Since the brain underlies all human ability, the methods we have applied to children with hearing loss could have widespread use in predicting function and improving the lives of children with a broad range of disabilities.” 

Decades of research shows early cochlear implantation is vital because early hearing loss deprives the auditory areas of the brain of stimulation, Young said. “You want to minimise the period of auditory deprivation, and therefore, younger age of implantation is advantageous,” she added. “It makes sense that if you have that gap you have to catch up a bit. So far, we have not had a reliable way to predict which children are at risk to develop poorer language,” Young said.

“Our study is the first to provide clinicians and caregivers with concrete information about how much language improvement can be expected given the child’s brain development immediately before surgery. The ability to forecast children at risk is the critical first step to improving their outcome. It will lay the groundwork for future development and testing of customised therapies.”
Scientists used brain MRIs of normal hearing and deaf children to capture abnormal patterns in children with hearing loss before they received cochlear implants. These MRIs were used to construct a machine-learning algorithm to predict language development with a relatively high degree of accuracy, specificity and sensitivity, according to Wong.
Young says prediction is just the first step. “The overarching goal is to use this to change these children’s lives by coming up with hearing, speech and music therapy that can be individualised in terms of the type of therapy and dose of therapy so we can improve outcomes,” she said. “We’re trying to create precision therapy.”

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