Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most mystifying mysteries, and the future design of hearing aids might get an overhaul in line with their findings.
Results from an MIT study debunked the belief that neural processing is what lets us single out voices. Tuning into individual levels of sound may actually be managed by a biochemical filter according to this study.
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 result of wearing a hearing aid, people that use a hearing-improvement device have typically still struggled in environments with a lot of background noise. For instance, the continuous buzz surrounding settings like parties and restaurants can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to discriminate a voice.
Having a conversation with someone in a crowded room can be stressful and annoying and people who suffer from hearing loss know this all too well.
For decades scientists have been investigating hearing loss. The way that sound waves travel through the ear and how those waves are differentiated, due to this body of research, was believed to be well understood.
Scientists Discover The Tectorial Membrane
However, it was in 2007 that scientists identified the tectorial membrane inside of the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t find this microscopic membrane composed 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.
Minute in size, the tectorial membrane sits on tiny hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that manage how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. Researchers noted that different frequencies of sound reacted differently to the amplification produced by the membrane.
The middle frequencies were shown to have strong amplification and the frequencies at the lower and higher ends of the scale were less impacted.
It’s that development that leads some scientists to believe MIT’s groundbreaking breakthrough could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately enable better single-voice recognition.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
The fundamental principles 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 general components of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained the same. This is, unfortunately, where the drawback of this design becomes apparent.
All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device including background noise. Another MIT scientist has long thought tectorial membrane research could lead to new hearing aid designs that provide better speech recognition for users.
The user of these new hearing aids could, theoretically, tune in to an individual voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune distinct frequencies. With this concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds increased to aid in reception.
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