Charles Limb performs cochlear implantation, a surgery that treats hearing loss and can restore the ability to hear speech. But as a musician too, Limb thinks about what the implants lack: They don't let you fully experience music yet. (There's a hair-raising example.) At TEDMED, Limb reviews the state of the art and the way forward.
Charles Limb has two titles on his official website: Associate Professor, Otolaryngology, Head & Neck Surgery, and Faculty, Peabody Conservatory of Music. He combines his two passions to study the way the brain creates and perceives music. He's a hearing specialist and surgeon at Johns Hopkins who performs cochlear implantations on patients who have lost their hearing.And he plays sax, piano and bass.
Charles Limb states, "Now if you look at the brain of an individual who has a cochlear implant and you have them listen to speech, have them listen to rhythm and have them listen to melody, what you find is that the auditory cortex is the most active during speech. You would think that because these implants are optimized for speech, they were designed for speech. But actually if you look at melody, what you find is that there's very little cortical activity in implant users compared with normal hearing controls. So for whatever reason, this implant is not successfully stimulating auditory cortices during melody perception."He goes further to state, "Now the question comes to mind: Is there any hope?And yes, there is hope. Now I don't know if anybody knows who this is. This is ... does somebody know?This is Beethoven. Now why would we know what Beethoven's skull looks like? Because his grave was exhumed. And it turns out that his temporal bones were harvested when he died to try to look at the cause of his death, which is why he has molding clay and his skull is bulging out on the side there. But Beethoven composed music long after he lost his hearing. What that suggests is that, even in the case of hearing loss, the capacity for music remains. The brains remain hardwired for music."
To conclude, he offers next steps when he says, "When it comes to restoration of hearing, we have certainly come a long way, a remarkably long way.And we have a much longer way to go when it comes to the idea of restoring perfect hearing. And let me tell you right now, it's fine that we would all be very happy with speech. But I tell you, if we lost our hearing, if anyone here suddenly lost your hearing, you would want perfect hearing back. You wouldn't want decent hearing, you would want perfect hearing. Restoration of basic sensory function is critical. And I don't mean to understate how important it is to restore basic function.But it's really restoration of the ability to perceive beauty where we can get inspiring. And I don't think that we should give up on beauty."
Recently, at the Colloquy on Music in Health and Medicine at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, we heard from Lorna MacDonald, the Lois Marshall Chair of Voice Studies who reported on a Cochlear-Implant Singing Study at the Hospital for Sick Children. In collaboration with Talar Hopyan, Dr. Blake Papsin, and Karen Gordon, Lorna MacDonald has been focusing on enhanced speech inflection through singing lessons for teenage CI-users implanted in early childhood. It is inspiring to know that so many in the fields of medicine and music are working toward the improvement for others.