Sunnybrook Magazine - Spring 2019

This new fund will help advance the science of cochlear implants

Gord Mason supports cochlear implant research, so more patients can fully benefit from the device.

Gord Mason supports cochlear implant research, so more patients can fully benefit from the device. (Photograph by Doug Nicholson)

After cochlear implants allowed Gord Mason to hear again, he wanted to give back. The Mason Scientific Discovery Fund will investigate how the brain turns sound into signals, to improve implant results for all patients.

Gord Mason, who has enjoyed a long and successful career as a homebuilder and businessman, loves to share how he regained the ability to hear.

Gord first noticed trouble with his hearing as a young man. It was the late 1950s, and he was training with the Royal Canadian Air Force. The training included being tested in a decompression chamber to simulate the thin atmosphere pilots encounter at 3,000 metres in the air.

“I thought my right ear was going to blow apart,” Gord remembers. “It was killing me. They told me it was routine, but I ended up not going into the Air Force.”

Gord’s hearing difficulties continued after he founded his Stouffville, Ont.-based house and condo-building business, Mason Homes, in 1961.

“I used to travel a lot for business. I’d get off a flight and I wouldn’t be able to hear until the next day,” he says.

Progressive hearing loss over the next few decades affected Gord professionally and emotionally.

“You lose your confidence when you can’t hear,” he says. “I remember sitting down with four people, two on either side of me. They had a cross-conversation going. I’m sitting in between and I’m not getting anything.”

Gord says he wouldn’t realize that he was talking too loudly because of his hearing loss. He said he felt that could sometimes give the impression to others that he was angry or hot-tempered.

By the time Gord reached his 70s, he had lost much of his ability to hear the people and the world around him.

“It’s hard, and it’s especially hard when you’re in business,” he says.

Today, Gord hears quite well, thanks to dual cochlear implants he received from Sunnybrook’s Cochlear Implant Program. He received his second implant last year, several years after the first ear.

Gord says for him, the ability to hear properly is life-changing.

“It gave me my confidence back. Now I can go to meetings and hear people at the other end of the table,” he says. “And when I drive, I put on the radio. I listen to music!”

Gord’s journey back to hearing – and greater happiness – meant so much to him that he decided to donate funds to establish the Mason Scientific Discovery Fund at Sunnybrook.

The fund’s researchers are working to advance the science of cochlear implants, studying how the brain “listens” to sound and investigating why some implants are more successful than others.

“The Mason Scientific Discovery Fund will allow us to create a hub and bring researchers from different areas of electrophysiology and auditory science to innovate and find novel solutions to improve outcomes,” says Dr. Joseph Chen, director of the Sunnybrook Otology-Skull Base Fellowship Program and provincial coordinator of the Ontario Cochlear Implant Program.

In cochlear implant surgery, which takes up to two hours, an electronic device is implanted into the patient’s skull and inner ear, and the patient wears an external piece of the device behind the ear.

The implanted device stimulates the hearing nerve directly, bypassing damaged parts of the inner ear and sending signals directly to nerves connected to the brain.

After the surgery, the device must be calibrated with a computer, and it takes up to four weeks for it to start working at full capacity.

“It’s a medical miracle that has actually outperformed our wildest dreams,” says Dr. Chen, who began performing cochlear implant surgery at Sunnybrook in 1992. The Sunnybrook program is the largest in Canada, performing 200 implants every year.

Now I can go to meetings and hear people at the other end of the table.
– Gord Mason

Dr. Chen, who performed Gord’s implant surgery, says that cochlear implants have traditionally been implanted in people who were completely deaf.

“Over time, we have learned that people with a bit of residual hearing can benefit the most,” he says.

Adults with normal language skills who lose hearing later in life are perhaps the best candidates for cochlear implants, says Dr. Chen. Within this group, patients who are younger may have physiological and cognitive advantages to perform better.

But after 30 years of implant surgery, “what we have realized is that everything else being equal, the biggest impact to performance is related to the intensity of rehabilitation immediately after activation in the first six to 12 months of use,” says Dr. Chen. “We are becoming more and more focused on this window.”

Andrew Dimitrijevic is research director for the Cochlear Implant Program at Sunnybrook. He says the Mason Fund will enable researchers to study the interaction between cochlear implants and the nerves that translate sound into signals to the brain.

“We look at the brain waves of people who are hard of hearing and also of people who hear normally to see how the brain responds to sounds, including specific sounds such as speech and noise,” says Dimitrijevic, who holds a PhD in neuroscience.

“It turns out that you need to reach the higher centres of the brain to understand and process speech,” he says. “We hear with our ears, but our brain is where the listening takes place.”

He explains that our brains store a “template” of sounds we have heard in the past that helps us understand what we’re hearing. Cochlear implant patients may not have heard these stored sounds for years, or ever, so they must build new connections between what the implants allow them to hear and how the brain listens to these sounds.

“We’re trying to understand these connections better, so we can improve how patients hear,” Dimitrijevic says.

The research is endlessly exciting to Gord.

“I’m funding an idea,” he says. “And when I talk to Andrew and hear his excitement, I’m convinced there’s something [big] coming.”

While hearing has made him more productive at work, Gord says the subtle joys are perhaps the most satisfying.

“Shortly after I had the second implant, I stayed late at the office. I came outside around 7 p.m., and I heard something strange,” he says.

It was a gentle noise that Gord could not recall ever hearing before.

“It was a soft rain,” he says. “It was such a pleasant sound.”