Deaf child hears mother's voice, does "happy dance"

The sight of 3-year-old Kennedy Steele doing a happy dance is something her mother will never forget.

The little girl erupted in glee upon hearing the sound of her mother's voice for the first time. Kennedy, who was born deaf, is one of a small number of children in the U.S. testing a brain implant procedure that allows her to hear.

"It's something I've been looking forward to for a long time," mom Nickia Steele told CBS News.

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Three-year-old Kennedy Steele responds to the sound of her mother's voice.
CBS News

Kennedy was born without auditory nerves, so a cochlear implant, which helps some hearing-impaired people by stimulating the auditory nerve, was not an option for her. Instead she recently received an auditory brainstem implant, which bypasses what's missing in her inner ear.

This type of implant is already being used on older patients, and the FDA recently approved testing it in children at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, where Kennedy had her surgery, and three other hospitals in Massachusetts, California and North Carolina.

"Early results are quite encouraging, " said Dr. J. Thomas Roland, Jr., chair of the department of otolaryngology at NYU Langone. "We think that these kids are getting auditory information and are on a trajectory to develop oral language acquisition and oral speech."

But Roland says the big unknown is what the brain will do with this new experience of sound. "Is that enough information to allow her to understand speech, to produce speech and to develop language?"

Kennedy's mother sure hopes so. "My family is looking forward to getting to communicate better with her. That's been the most important thing," she said.

Doctors plan to follow Kennedy's progress for the next five years to see how her speech develops.