Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) might have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most bewildering mysteries, and the future design of hearing aids could get an overhaul based on their findings.
The long standing belief that voices are singled out by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. Tuning into specific levels of sound may actually be handled 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.
Though a major boost in one’s ability to hear can be the result of wearing a hearing aid, environments with a lot of background noise have typically been an issue for people who wear a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to single out voices, for example, can be severely reduced in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a steady din of background noise.
Having a conversation with somebody in a crowded room can be upsetting and frustrating and people who deal with hearing loss know this all too well.
Scientists have been closely studying hearing loss for decades. The way that sound waves travel through the ear and how those waves are distinguished, due to this body of research, was believed to be well understood.
The Tectorial Membrane is Discovered
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t discovered by scientists until 2007. 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.
When vibration comes into the ear, the minute tectorial membrane manages how water moves in reaction using small pores as it sits on little hairs in the cochlea. It was noted that the amplification produced by the membrane caused a different reaction to different frequencies of sound.
The tones at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum seemed to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification among the middle tones.
It’s that development that leads some scientists to believe MIT’s groundbreaking discovery could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately allow for better single-voice recognition.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
The fundamental principles of hearing aid design haven’t changed much over the years. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some enhancements, but most hearing aids are generally comprised of microphones which pick up sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. This is, unfortunately, where the drawback of this design becomes obvious.
All frequencies are increased with an amplification device and that includes background noise. Another MIT scientist has long believed tectorial membrane exploration could result in new hearing aid designs that provide better speech recognition for wearers.
The user of these new hearing aids could, in theory, tune in to a specific voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune specific frequencies. With this design, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds increased to aid in reception.
Have Questions About Hearing Loss?
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