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A Sensitive Period for the Development of the Central Auditory System in Children with Cochlear Implants: Implications for Age of Implantation

Sharma, Anu; Dorman, Michael F.; Spahr, Anthony J.

Article

Objective 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.

Design 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.

Results 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.

Conclusions 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.

Because P1 latencies of the cortical auditory evoked potential vary as a function of chronological age, they can be used to infer the maturational status of auditory pathways and the human central auditory system. This measure was used to assess the consequences of deafness and of cochlear implantation at different ages on auditory development. The development of P1 response latencies was measured in 104 congenitally deaf people who had been fitted with cochlear implants at ages ranging from 1.3 years to adulthood. 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 years-had abnormal cortical response latencies to speech. Implanted children with no more than 3.5 years of auditory deprivation evidenced age-appropriate latency responses within 6 months after the onset of electrical stimulation. These data suggest that in the absence of normal stimulation there is a sensitive period of about 3.5 years during which the human central auditory system remains maximally plastic.

Callier Advanced Hearing Research Center (A.S.), University of Texas at Dallas, Dallas, Texas; University of Utah Health Sciences Center (M.F.D.), Salt Lake City, Utah; and Arizona State University (A.J.S.), Arizona Biomedical Institute, Tempe, Arizona.

Received February 15, 2002 accepted September 1, 2002

Address for correspondence: Anu Sharma, University of Texas at Dallas, Callier Center for Communication Disorders, 1966 Inwood Road, Dallas, TX 75235. E-mail: anu.sharma@utdallas.edu.

© 2002 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.