Audiologists Test Breakthrough In Hearing Care For Children

June 20, 1996


(June 19, 1996)

(Contact: James Dean, (520) 621-5797, or at the Grunewald-Blitz Clinic, 621-1826)

Audiologists at the Grunewald-Blitz Children's Clinic at The University of Arizona in Tucson are testing what promises to be a long-awaited breakthrough in hearing care -- a fully automatic compact hearing aid that digitally processes sound. It adjusts automatically to different noise levels.

Currently, children in Tucson are being fitted with the revolutionary device, called the DigiFocus, produced by Oticon, Inc., based in Copenhagen (Denmark).

Sixty other hearing centers worldwide also are doing pre- market evaluation of the DigiFocus, but the UA has the only children's hearing clinic involved in the study, said James Dean, director of the UA hearing clinics. The UA facility was selected because of its national prominence as a pediatric audiology clinic.

Dean and UA prediatric audiologist Ellen Goldman are assessing the audiological and educational benefits associated with the DigiFocus, which will become commercially available in Arizona in July.

Peter Hahn, president of Oticon Inc., said it was important to have the cooperation of the UA clinic in evaluting the benefits of digital technology for children.

"Most of the current research on hearing aids is done using adults," Hahn said. "Hundreds of adults worldwide have been wearing this device and have reported significant benefits over current hearing aid technologies. One of our goals for this new device is to also show that children with hearing loss will benefit, and accelerate their rate of speech, language and social development as a result."

"Oticon is recognized worldwide as a leader in responding to the needs of children with hearing loss," Dean said.

What makes the new digital hearing instrument a true breakthrough is its flexibility in processing sound, he added. "Think of the difference between a radio with only bass and treble controls and a fully-featured studio mixer, which adjusts sounds in many different frequency bands. Because of the miniature computer in DigiFocus, sound can be split into seven frequency bands, each of which can be adjusted in several ways. These bands are then processed through two channels to automatically adjust for loudness levels and speech."

The most exciting feature of this personal hearing device is its automatic nature; there are no remote or volume controls for children or their parents to adjust. Dean said he and Goldman believe this to be a critical feature. In theory, Dean said, an automatic hearing aid will be beneficial since very young children cannot make adjustments to their hearing aids, and it is impossible for their parents or teachers to "hear through the child's ears."

Dean and Goldman also are testing another computer- programmable device on infants, called PiCs, manufactured by the Illinois-based firm, Phonak. This hearing aid is not automatic but it does have three separate programs that can be selected for different noise levels by a remote control.

"With the newborn to two-year-old population we are investigating, parents or primary caregivers make program selections based on the listening situation and observations of the infant's responses," Dean said. "Parental observation of their child's responses during daily activities is crucial to any successful hearing aid fitting."

Dean and Goldman are testing behind-the-ear models of the DigiFocus and PiCs systems. Both systems also are available as in- the-ear aids. The units are about the same size as traditional hearing aids, but cost two or three times as much.

University audiologists and speech/language pathologists have been serving children, teaching UA students, furthering research leading to improved therapies and collaboratively consulting with other public and private clinics for about 20 years. For the past five years, the UA hearing clinic has tested and otherwise served an average of more than a 1,000 children annually.

University of Arizona

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