It’s a Friday morning, and UNC Greensboro’s Speech and Hearing Center has the warm feel of a group of friends catching up. The conversation flows so easily, despite that two members in the group would be unable to hear without a small electronic device visible just behind the ear.

The meeting of graduate students in the School of Health and Human Sciences’ Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and older adult community members is part of a leading-edge research project measuring the impact of support provided to older adults with cochlear implants.

“We’re the exception rather than the rule here,” said Dr. Denise Tucker, Professor and principal investigator for the project. “It’s not common for late-deafened adults with cochlear implants to have this kind of opportunity.”

The Cochlear Implant Connections (CIC) research project is a three-year study with its roots in a clinical service program that ran between 2007 and 2014 at UNCG. Tucker and Dr. Mary V. Compton, associate professor emeritus and co-investigator, noticed children with cochlear implants received support while older adults were left out.

A sound processor worn behind the ear captures sound and turns it into digital code. The sound processor transmits the digitally coded sound through the coil on the outside of the patients’ head to the cochlear implant.

A main component of the project is to provide students with clinical training in working with adults with late-onset deafness and cochlear implants.

In the early phase, Tucker and Compton partnered with area otolaryngologists (ear, nose, and throat physicians) and audiologists like Dr. Amy Myers, now an assistant professor at UNCG, to identify qualifying patients – adults between the ages of 40 and 80 years with cochlear implants worn less than three years. Results were positive. They assessed a sliding fee, but soon found that not all patients could afford the program.

The team formally launched the study this spring, which includes a 10-week biopsychosocial aural rehabilitation therapy program that meets once a week for one-hour group therapy and 30-minute individual sessions. CIC is designed to provide subjects with support, instruction, and structured listening activities. Participants are older adult community members who have a cochlear implant in at least one ear and have never attended group therapy. This time around, participation is free.

Two PhD and three master’s students are involved in the research in order to advance their clinical knowledge and skill sets.

Zori Vinson observes the Cochlear Implant Connections research project in action. Vinson is a senior interested in graduate studies in speech language pathology.

“Part of our aim for them is to move forward incorporating evidence-based practice, and we believe strongly that this is a good way to do that,” said Dr. Christopher Atkins, associate professor and director of the Speech and Hearing Center.

Graduate student Kaela Powers will graduate in May 2020 with a master’s in speech language pathology. She said the hands-on experience she’s received working on the study has been enlightening.

“It’s giving us a chance as graduate clinicians to be exposed to how the world of audiology and speech language pathology is meshed together to help those with hearing loss,” Powers said.

The goals of the program are multifold. First, to help older adults understand the technology and usage of the cochlear implant, manage strategies for hearing impairment, and how to communicate with the new device.

People hear with their ears, but they understand speech and sound with their brains. Late-deafened adults who lost their hearing later in life and are now implanted need aural rehabilitation as they learn how to listen again with a biomedical device.    

To accomplish this, it takes a collective and inter-professional effort of audiologists and speech therapists – with the students, Atkins, Myers, Compton, and Tucker at the helm.

Dr. Christopher Atkins (middle), Dr. Amy Myers (left), and Dr. Denise Tucker (right), use listening comprehension practices to improve patients’ auditory processing.

The second goal of the program takes a holistic approach to rehabilitation; they don’t just look at hearing loss, but the participants’ lifestyle, family, and friends. Through counseling and peer mentoring, participants gain confidence, become advocates for themselves, and enhance their quality of life.

“It has been very helpful,” said Larry Plyler, 75, a participant who received a cochlear implant three months ago. “It makes me realize some things I hadn’t been paying attention to, but should be.”

The Speech and Hearing Center on Friday mornings isn’t just a research lab. It’s a place where people who may not otherwise have such an opportunity can share their hearing journey and support one another. And for Tucker, it’s the kind of care that should be available to everyone.

“My goal is that I want this to be the standard of clinical care.”

For more information about the Cochlear Implant Connections research project, contact Dr. Amy Myers, ammyers2@uncg.edu.

 

Story by Elizabeth L. Harrison, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications