Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
One main incentive for supplying hearing impaired children with a cochlear implant is the prospect of oral language acquisition. Only scarce knowledge exists, however, of what congenitally deaf children actually perceive when receiving their first auditory input, and specifically what speech-relevant features they are able to extract from the new modality. We therefore presented congenitally deaf infants and young children implanted before the age of 4 years with an oddball paradigm of long and short vowel variants of the syllable /ba/. We measured the EEG in regular intervals to study their discriminative ability starting with the first activation of the implant up to 8 months later. We were thus able to time-track the emerging ability to differentiate one of the most basic linguistic features that bears semantic differentiation and helps in word segmentation, namely, vowel length. Results show that already 2 months after the first auditory input, but not directly after implant activation, these early implanted children differentiate between long and short syllables. Surprisingly, after only 4 months of hearing experience, the ERPs have reached the same properties as those of the normal hearing control group, demonstrating the plasticity of the brain with respect to the new modality. We thus show that a simple but linguistically highly relevant feature such as vowel length reaches age-appropriate electrophysiological levels as fast as 4 months after the first acoustic stimulation, providing an important basis for further language acquisition.