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 based on their findings.
The enduring belief that voices are singled out by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. Tuning into individual levels of sound may actually be handled by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise
While millions of people battle hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt to deal with that hearing loss with the use of hearing aids.
Though a major boost in one’s ability to hear can be the result of using a hearing aid, settings with a lot of background noise have typically been a problem for people who wear a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to single out voices, for example, can be seriously limited in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a steady din of background noise.
Having a discussion with somebody in a crowded room can be stressful and annoying and individuals who cope with hearing loss know this all too well.
For decades scientists have been studying hearing loss. The way that sound waves travel through the ear and how those waves are distinguished, due to this body of research, was thought to be well understood.
The Tectorial Membrane is Identified
However, it was in 2007 that scientists identified the tectorial membrane inside of the inner ear’s cochlea. The ear is the only place on the body you will see this gel-like membrane. What really fascinated scientists was how the membrane provides mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
Minuscule in size, the tectorial membrane sits on tiny hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that control how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. Researchers observed that different tones reacted differently to the amplification produced by the membrane.
The middle frequencies were found to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the scale were less affected.
Some scientists believe that more effective hearing aids that can better distinguish individual voices will be the result of this groundbreaking MIT study.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
For years, the general design concepts of hearing aids have remained fairly unchanged. Tweaks and fine-tuning have helped with some enhancements, but the majority of hearing aids are essentially made up of microphones which pick up sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s drawbacks becomes apparent.
All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device and that includes background noise. Another MIT researcher has long believed tectorial membrane research could result in new hearing aid designs that offer better speech recognition for wearers.
The user of these new hearing aids could, theoretically, tune in to an individual voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune distinct frequencies. With this design, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds amplified to aid in reception.
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