An illustration with audio waves juxtaposed over silhouettes of many different people.
Illustrations: Pablo Delcan

The End of Deafness

Tweaking a person’s DNA could provide hearing to those born without it, but not everyone thinks deafness needs to be ‘cured’

Emily Mullin
Published in
18 min readSep 29, 2020

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When Jessica Chaikof was born in February 1995, doctors at an Atlanta hospital placed a pair of headphones on her, piping sounds into her newborn ears while an electrode stuck to her tiny head measured her brain’s response to the noise. Her parents, Melissa and Elliot, held their breath.

Newborn hearing screenings wouldn’t become widespread in the United States for a few more years, but Jessica was considered at high risk for deafness. Her older sister, Rachel, was born with profound hearing loss and went completely deaf at 18 months old.

In the hospital, the couple waited while the audiologist tried the test on Jessica again and again. After several attempts, the doctor still couldn’t get a response in either ear. Her parents knew what that meant — their second daughter was deaf, too. Experts had told the Chaikofs that Rachel’s deafness was brought on by a viral infection, but Jessica’s diagnosis meant that both daughters must have inherited it. At three weeks old, Jessica was outfitted with hearing aids, but she never responded to sound.

The Chaikofs wanted to help Jessica as soon as possible since the first few years of life are thought to be critical for language acquisition. When Jessica was 14 months old, the family flew to New York to find out whether she would be a candidate for a cochlear implant, an electronic device that provides a modified sense of sound. The following month, Jessica underwent surgery, at the time becoming the youngest child in the country to get a cochlear implant.

“It’s given me the opportunity to communicate with the world, get to know people, be fully mainstream, and identify very much with the hearing world,” says Jessica, who’s now 25.

A cochlear implant receives and processes sound and speech but doesn’t provide natural hearing. Jessica needed years of intensive training to learn how to listen to and interpret spoken language with her cochlear implants, and though they’re made to be long lasting, they sometimes break and need to be replaced. Even with the device, Jessica is still deaf.

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Emily Mullin
Future Human

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.