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 notion that voices are isolated by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. According to the study, it may actually be a biochemical filter that allows us to tune in to specific sound levels.
How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise
Only a small portion of the millions of individuals who cope with hearing loss actually use hearing aids to deal with it.
Even though a hearing aid can give a tremendous boost to one’s ability to hear, environments with lots of background noise have typically been a problem for individuals who use a hearing improvement device. For instance, the constant buzz surrounding settings like restaurants and parties can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to discriminate a voice.
Having a conversation with somebody in a crowded room can be stressful and annoying and people who suffer from hearing loss know this all too well.
For decades scientists have been studying hearing loss. Due to 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.
The Tectorial Membrane is Discovered
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t discovered by scientists until 2007. You won’t find this microscopic membrane made of a gel-like substance in any other parts of the body. What really intrigued 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 controls how water moves in reaction using small pores as it rests on little hairs in the cochlea. Researchers noticed that different tones reacted differently to the amplification made by the membrane.
The tones at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum seemed to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study found strong amplification in the middle tones.
Some scientists think that more effective hearing aids that can better distinguish individual voices will be the outcome of this groundbreaking MIT study.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
The fundamental concepts of hearing aid design haven’t changed much over the years. A microphone to pick up sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the general components of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained the same. This is, unfortunately, where the shortcoming of this design becomes apparent.
Amplifiers, normally, are unable to differentiate between different frequencies of sounds, which means the ear gets increased levels of all sounds, including background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, result in new, state-of-the-art hearing aid designs which would offer better speech recognition.
The user of these new hearing aids could, in theory, tune in to an individual 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 boosted to aid in reception.
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