The aim of the present experiment was to assess the consequences of cochlear implantation at different ages on the development of the human central auditory system.
Our measure of the maturity of central auditory pathways was the latency of the P1 cortical auditory evoked potential. Because P1 latencies vary as a function of chronological age, they can be used to infer the maturational status of auditory pathways in congenitally deafened children who regain hearing after being fit with a cochlear implant. We examined the development of P1 response latencies in 104 congenitally deaf children who had been fit with cochlear implants at ages ranging from 1.3 yr to 17.5 yr and three congenitally deaf adults. The independent variable was the duration of deafness before cochlear implantation. The dependent variable was the latency of the P1 cortical auditory evoked potential.
A comparison of P1 latencies in implanted children with those of age-matched normal-hearing peers revealed that implanted children with the longest period of auditory deprivation before implantation—7 or more yr—had abnormal cortical response latencies to speech. Implanted children with the shortest period of auditory deprivation—approximately 3.5 yr or less—evidenced age-appropriate latency responses within 6 mo after the onset of electrical stimulation.
Our data suggest that in the absence of normal stimulation there is a sensitive period of about 3.5 yr during which the human central auditory system remains maximally plastic. Plasticity remains in some, but not all children until approximately age 7. After age 7, plasticity is greatly reduced. These data may be relevant to the issue of when best to place a cochlear implant in a congenitally deaf child.