Brainstem implant is Leia's best birthday gift

Posted on Monday 29th June 2015
Leia Armstrong, auditory brainstem implant patient

Alison, Leia and Bob Armitage

A little girl who was born profoundly deaf will be able to hear her parents sing Happy Birthday after becoming one of the youngest people in the UK to have pioneering hearing surgery.

Leia Armitage, who celebrated her fourth birthday on Sunday 28 June, was born with a rare form of deafness. She was missing her cochlea and auditory nerve in both ears - without these, it is impossible for sound to reach the brain.

She underwent pioneering brain surgery to have an auditory brainstem implant (ABI). The electronic hearing device stimulates neurons directly at the brainstem, bypassing the cochlea and auditory nerve entirely.

Leia’s dad, Bob Armitage, says:  “We were devastated when we found out Leia was missing her auditory nerve as well as her cochlea. We thought we had no hope as her deafness was so rare, but thanks to the ABI we’ve come so far.

“Leia can now hear us calling her from other rooms and we spend hours watching her dance and sing along to her favourite Disney films. We’re so excited to sing Happy Birthday to her, it’s going to be a special day for the whole family.”

A unique team of hearing experts from Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and King’s College Hospital, came together to perform Leia’s pioneering ABI procedure at King’s College Hospital in 2013.

ABIs are usually used for adults who have lost the auditory nerve through severe injury or by removal of a brain tumour. It is only in very recent years that experts have begun to trial them on children born without the nerve.

Professor Dan Jiang, one of three surgeons involved in Leia’s ABI operation, and Head of the Hearing Implant Centre at St Thomas’ Hospital, says: “ABIs require complex brain surgery to implant 12 electrodes directly onto the brainstem. The procedure is revolutionary for children with no auditory nerve, it is their only chance of ever accessing sound.”

Katherine Wilson, lead audiological scientist at St Thomas’, activated and programmed Leia’s ABI on her second birthday, six weeks after her implant surgery.

She says: “We’ve monitored Leia’s progress over the past 24 months and at each stage we’ve been thrilled at the success she has made.

“At this crucial two-year mark, we’re confident that Leia’s brain has adapted to the device to gain the optimum benefits. She’s hearing all types of sounds and is now starting to form her own speech.”

Leia’s mum, Alison, who is expecting a little brother for Leia in September, says: “It’s been a long journey, but Leia is a little miracle. We’re so grateful for the hard work and determination of everyone involved in her care.

“We want other parents in the same situation as us to know that there is another option out there for their child’s hearing. There is hope.”

Professor Shakeel Saeed from University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is responsible for bringing together the team of experts who have now formed the London ABI Centre based at St Thomas’ Hospital.

Professor Saeed says: “The unique experience in ABIs and hearing implants that we have brought together is an incredible example of how collaboration in the NHS can deliver groundbreaking results.”

The second ABI in a child with no auditory nerve has just been performed by the London ABI Centre. They hope to offer the procedure to many more children like Leia.