Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) might have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most mystifying mysteries, and the future design of hearing aids may get an overhaul in line with their findings.
Findings from an MIT study debunked the belief that neural processing is what lets us single out voices. According to the study, it might actually be a biochemical filter that enables us to tune in to specific levels of sound.
How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise
While millions of people fight hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt to overcome that hearing loss using hearing aids.
Though a major boost in one’s ability to hear can be the outcome of using a hearing aid, those who wear a hearing-improvement device have commonly still had trouble in settings with copious amounts of background noise. A person’s ability to discriminate voices, for example, can be drastically limited in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a continuous din of background noise.
If you’re a person who is experiencing hearing loss, you most likely recognize how frustrating and stressful it can be to have a one-on-one conversation with somebody in a crowded room.
Scientists have been meticulously studying hearing loss for decades. As a result of 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
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 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. Researchers noticed that different frequencies of sound 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 spectrum were less impacted.
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 identification.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
For years, the basic design principles of hearing aids have remained fairly 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 unchanged. This is, regrettably, where the drawback of this design becomes obvious.
All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device and that includes 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.
In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune in to a specific frequency range, which would allow the wearer to hear isolated sounds like a single voice. Only the chosen frequencies would be amplified with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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