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For a decade, the Graduate Education Advancement Board Impact Awards have recognized new graduate student discoveries that directly benefit North Carolina. Our spring 2015 Carolina Chronicle will describe the research of all of the 2015 Impact Award recipients.  For now, the research of one award winner, Christopher Giardina, will give you a preview of the many innovative research projects to come in 2015.

Christopher Giardina
Christopher Giardina

Cochlear implants are a medical miracle, providing the gift of sound to deaf children and adults alike. However, outcomes with cochlear implants vary widely, ranging from increased lip reading to the ability to carry on normal conversations and even talk on the phone.

The reasons for these different responses are not entirely clear. But it might have something to do with cochlear trauma during the implantation surgery. Working with surgeons at UNC Hospitals, M.D./Ph.D. student Christopher Giardina has constructed custom surgical tools that are designed to detect cochlear trauma at the time of implantation.

“All the cochlear implant manufacturers are optimizing new implants to minimize trauma,” says Giardina, “but few groups are actually assessing trauma during surgery.”

Utilization of Giardina’s custom surgical tools has advanced from gerbil models to routine use during cochlear implant research surgeries in the operating room of UNC Hospitals. Giardina, along with faculty members Oliver Adunka and Douglas Fitzpatrick, received a $50,000 Innovation Pilot Award for commercializing this technology in 2014.

The tools, applied during the surgical procedure, operate through a three-step process:  an auditory tone is directed into the ear, the hair cells and auditory nerve fibers respond to the tone, and the tools then record the response. Giardina and his colleagues have shown that cochlear responses to tones can indicate even very small degrees of damage to hair cells and nerve fibers. This information can help surgeons recognize trauma and ideally adapt their technique to minimize further trauma during surgery.

Giardina’s research team is now assessing the collected data for possible associations between degree of hair cell and nerve fiber damage and a patient’s speech comprehension after surgery. The team hopes this data may ultimately help audiologists correctly tune implants for each person receiving them – and lead to better speech outcomes for all children and adults who receive this surgery.

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