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As the most successful neural prosthesis, cochlear implants have provided partial hearing to more than 120000 persons worldwide; half of which being pediatric users who are able to develop nearly normal language. Biomedical engineers have played a central role in the design, integration and evaluation of the cochlear implant system, but the overall success is a result of collaborative work with physiologists, psychologists, physicians, educators, and entrepreneurs. This review presents broad yet in-depth academic and industrial perspectives on the underlying research and ongoing development of cochlear implants. The introduction accounts for major events and advances in cochlear implants, including dynamic interplays among engineers, scientists, physicians, and policy makers. The review takes a system approach to address critical issues in cochlear implant research and development. First, the cochlear implant system design and specifications are laid out. Second, the design goals, principles, and methods of the subsystem components are identified from the external speech processor and radio frequency transmission link to the internal receiver, stimulator and electrode arrays. Third, system integration and functional evaluation are presented with respect to safety, reliability, and challenges facing the present and future cochlear implant designers and users. Finally, issues beyond cochlear implants are discussed to address treatment options for the entire spectrum of hearing impairment as well as to use the cochlear implant as a model to design and evaluate other similar neural prostheses such as vestibular and retinal implants.