In the 21st century, people who are born deaf may hear, and those who lose their hearing may have it restored through the use of cochlear implants or artificial inner ears.

Dr. James L. Parkin, chairman of the Division of Otolaryngology, University of Utah, believes artificial ear science will make the world of sound available to most individuals, regardless of how their hearing is lost.Ineraid, the artificial ear developed at the Utah institution, has been tested in more than 30 profoundly deaf individuals to date.

At a recent reunion of patients wearing the Utah-developed Ineraid, 22 of them reported marked improvement in their hearing. They said they had to "relearn" to identify sounds they had been familiar with before losing their hearing, but they experienced significant improvement over time.

Ineraid consists of a permanently implanted set of six tiny electrodes placed in the cochlea, the snail-shaped channel in the inner ear. Wire connects the inner device to a pedestal attached to the skull behind the ear. A small pack containing a microphone and miniaturized electronic equipment processes sound and feeds it into the cochlear implant, which sends sound waves to the brain for processing.

"I think electrode systems will get better and sound-processing strategies will improve," Parkin said. "Units will become smaller. We have the prospects for dealing with deafness that is present at birth - in the first couple of years of life. That's the next step in the development of cochlear implants."