Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most bewildering mysteries, and the future design of hearing aids might get an overhaul in line with their findings.
Results from an MIT study debunked the idea that neural processing is what allows us to pick out voices. Tuning into specific levels of sound may actually be managed by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise
Only a small fraction of the millions of people who suffer from hearing loss actually use hearing aids to manage it.
Although a hearing aid can provide a tremendous boost to one’s ability to hear, people that wear a hearing-improvement device have traditionally still had trouble in settings with copious amounts of background noise. For example, the steady buzz associated with settings like restaurants and parties can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to discriminate a voice.
If you’re someone who is experiencing hearing loss, you very likely know how annoying and upsetting it can be to have a personal conversation with someone in a crowded room.
Scientists have been meticulously investigating hearing loss for decades. As a result of those efforts, the way that sound waves travel throughout the inner ear, and how the ear distinguishes different frequencies of sounds, was thought to be well-understood.
Scientists Identify The Tectorial Membrane
However, it was in 2007 that scientists discovered the tectorial membrane inside of the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t find this microscopic membrane made of a gel-like substance in any other parts of the body. The deciphering and delineation of sound is achieved by a mechanical filtering performed by this membrane and that may be the most intriguing thing.
When vibration enters the ear, the minute tectorial membrane controls how water moves in response using small pores as it sits on little hairs in the cochlea. It was observed that the amplification produced by the membrane caused a different reaction to different tones.
The frequencies at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum seemed to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification in the middle frequencies.
Some scientists think that more effective hearing aids that can better identify individual voices will be the result of this groundbreaking MIT study.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
For years, the general design principles of hearing aids have remained relatively unchanged. A microphone to detect sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the basic elements of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained the same. Unfortunately, that’s where one of the design’s drawbacks becomes evident.
Amplifiers, typically, are not able to differentiate between different frequencies of sounds, which means the ear gets boosted levels of all sounds, including background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT researcher, lead to new, state-of-the-art hearing aid designs which would provide better speech recognition.
In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a distinct frequency range, which would enable the wearer to hear isolated sounds like a single voice. With this design, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds boosted to aid in reception.
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