How Research Helps You Hear

Researchers working to improve hearing aids with new technology and algorithms.

Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) might have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most bewildering mysteries, and the revelation could result in the overhauling of the design of future hearing aids.

Results from an MIT study debunked the notion that neural processing is what allows us to single out voices. Isolating individual sound levels might actually be managed by a biochemical filter according to this study.

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 manage it.

Though a major boost in one’s ability to hear can be the result of wearing a hearing aid, environments with lots of background noise have typically been a problem for individuals who wear a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to discriminate voices, for example, can be seriously reduced 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 frustrating and people who cope with hearing loss know this all too well.

Scientists have been closely studying hearing loss for decades. Due to those efforts, the way in which 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 identified the tectorial membrane inside of the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t see this microscopic membrane made of a gel-like substance in any other parts of the body. The deciphering and delineation of sound is accomplished by a mechanical filtering performed by this membrane and that may be the most intriguing thing.

Minute in size, the tectorial membrane rests on tiny hairs inside the cochlea, with small pores that control how water moves back and forth in reaction to vibrations. Researchers noted that different tones reacted differently to the amplification made by the membrane.

The middle tones were found to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the scale were less affected.

It’s that development that leads some to believe MIT’s groundbreaking discovery could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately enable better single-voice identification.

Hearing Aid Design of The Future

For years, the general design principles of hearing aids have remained fairly unchanged. A microphone to pick up sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the basic components of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained unchanged. This is, regrettably, where the shortcoming of this design becomes obvious.

Amplifiers, normally, are not able to discern between different frequencies of sounds, which means the ear gets increased levels of all sounds, that includes background noise. Another MIT researcher has long thought tectorial membrane exploration could result in new hearing aid designs that offer better speech recognition for users.

Theoretically, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a distinct frequency range, which would permit the user to hear isolated sounds such as a single voice. Only the desired frequencies would be boosted with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.

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