Modern hearing aids have come a long way; existing models are remarkably effective and include impressive digital features, like wireless connectivity, that markedly enhance a person’s ability to hear along with their all-around quality of life.

But there is still room for improvement.

Particularly, in a few instances hearing aids have some trouble with two things:

  1. Locating the source of sound
  2. Eliminating background noise

But that may soon change, as the newest research in hearing aid design is being guided from a unusual source: the world of insects.

Why insects hold the key to improved hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the same problem related to hearing: the transformation and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What scientists are identifying is that the mechanism insects use to solve this problem is in many ways more proficient than our own.

The organs of hearing in an insect are smaller and more sensitive to a greater range of frequencies, allowing the insect to identify sounds humans cannot hear. Insects also can detect the directionality and distance of sound in ways more exact than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has traditionally been directed by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have had a tendency to provide straightforward amplification of incoming sound and transmission to the middle ear. But scientists are now asking a completely different question.

Borrowing inspiration from the natural world, they’re asking how nature—and its hundreds of millions of years of evolution—has attempted to solve the problem of sensing and perceiving sound. By investigating the hearing mechanism of assorted insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, investigators can borrow the best from each to generate a brand new mechanism that can be used in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.

Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones

Experts from University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and the MRC/CSO Institute for Hearing Research (IHR) at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, will be testing hearing aids equipped with a unique type of miniature microphone inspired by insects.

The hope is that the new hearing aids will accomplish three things:

  1. More energy-efficient microphones and electronics that will eventually result in smaller hearing aids, lower power usage, and extended battery life.
  2. The capability to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while excluding background noise.

Researchers will also be testing 3D printing procedures to improve the design and ergonomics of the new hearing aids.

The future of hearing aids

For virtually all of their history, hearing aids have been produced with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an attempt to reconstruct the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are establishing a new set of goals. Rather than attempting to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can IMPROVE it.

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