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) may have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most bewildering mysteries, and the future design of hearing aids could get an overhaul in line with their findings.

The long standing notion that voices are singled out by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. According to the study, it may actually be a biochemical filter that enables us to tune in to individual levels of sound.

How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise

While millions of individuals battle hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt to combat that hearing loss with the use of hearing aids.

Even though a hearing aid can provide a tremendous boost to one’s ability to hear, settings with lots of background noise have traditionally been a problem for people who use a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to discriminate voices, for example, can be drastically limited in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a steady din of background noise.

If you’re a person who suffers from hearing loss, you very likely know how frustrating and stressful it can be to have a personal conversation with somebody in a crowded room.

Scientists have been closely studying hearing loss for decades. The way that sound waves move through the ear and how those waves are differentiated, due to this body of research, was thought to be well understood.

Scientists Discover The Tectorial Membrane

But the tectorial membrane wasn’t discovered by scientists until 2007. You won’t see this microscopic membrane composed of a gel-like material in any other parts of the body. What really fascinated scientists was how the membrane supplies mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.

When vibration enters the ear, the minute tectorial membrane controls how water moves in response using small pores as it sits on little hairs in the cochlea. Researchers observed that different tones reacted differently to the amplification produced by the membrane.

The frequencies at the highest and lowest range appeared to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification in the middle frequencies.

It’s that development that leads some 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

The basic concepts of hearing aid design haven’t changed very much over the years. Tweaks and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but most hearing aids are basically made up of microphones which receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Unfortunately, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes evident.

All frequencies are increased with an amplification device and that includes background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, result in new, innovative hearing aid designs which would provide better speech recognition.

The user of these new hearing aids could, theoretically, tune in to a specific voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune specific frequencies. Only the chosen frequencies would be boosted with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.

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