Researchers at the famous 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 could get an overhaul based on their findings.
The enduring notion that voices are singled out by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. Isolating individual levels of sound may actually be handled by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear
Only a small portion of the millions of people who cope with hearing loss actually use hearing aids to deal with 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 traditionally been a problem for people who use a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to single out 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 someone 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 that sound waves travel throughout the inner ear, and how the ear distinguishes different frequencies of sounds, was thought to be well-understood.
Scientists Discover The Tectorial Membrane
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t identified by scientists until 2007. You won’t find this microscopic membrane made of a gel-like material 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 enters the ear, the tiny tectorial membrane manages how water moves in reaction using small pores as it rests on little hairs in the cochlea. Researchers noted that different frequencies of sound reacted differently to the amplification made by the membrane.
The tones at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum appeared to be less affected 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 fundamental concepts of hearing aid design haven’t changed very much over the years. 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. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s drawbacks becomes apparent.
All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device including background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT researcher, 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 concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds increased to aid in reception.
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