How Cochlear Implants Work: A Video Overview

“Without your vision and hearing, you don’t truly know what you’re about to confront,” says Douglas Hildrew, MD, an otolaryngologist at Yale. For patients with hearing loss, it’s often a long, slow process that gradually leaves them feeling isolated and unable to have meaningful connections with their family and friends.

"Hearing works by having tiny vibrations of the eardrum transferred to the cochlea,” says Elias Michaelides, MD, director of Yale Medicine's Hearing and Balance Program. "Those vibrations then move these tiny little hair cells, which then transfer the vibrational energy into electrical impulses, which then stimulate the nerves of hearing that go to the brain.”

When someone experiences hearing loss, those hair cells stop working, and are no longer able to transfer that vibrational energy to the brain - although the nerve itself is still fully functional. That’s why a hearing aid - which works by simply amplifying the sound - won’t work. But a cochlear implant can change lives.

"A cochlear implant is a device that we can use to restore hearing,” Dr. Michaelides says. "One part is implanted into the inner ear, and then an outer part, which communicates with the inner part, takes sound and transfers it into electrical impulses. It allows us to bypass the damaged inner ear and stimulate the nerve to recreate hearing.”

“It’s kind of a way of jumpstarting the system a bit further downstream,” Dr. Hildrew explains.

And when patients wake up after receiving their cochlear implant and discover they can hear again, a big smile spreads across their face: “You’ve given them back something that they’ve been deeply missing,” says Dr. Hildrew.