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 may get an overhaul based on their findings.
Results from an MIT study debunked the idea that neural processing is what lets us pick out voices. Isolating specific levels of sound might actually be managed by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear
While millions of people fight hearing loss, only a fraction of them try to deal with that hearing loss using hearing aids.
Though a major boost in one’s ability to hear can be the result of using a hearing aid, people who wear a hearing-improvement device have commonly still struggled in settings with copious amounts of background noise. A person’s ability to discriminate voices, for example, can be severely reduced in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a constant din of background noise.
Having a discussion with someone in a crowded room can be upsetting and frustrating and individuals who suffer from hearing loss know this all too well.
Scientists have been closely investigating hearing loss for decades. The way that sound waves move through the ear and how those waves are distinguished, due to this body of research, was thought to be well understood.
Scientists Identify The Tectorial Membrane
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t identified by scientists until 2007. You won’t see this microscopic membrane made of a gel-like material in any other parts of the body. What really intrigued scientists was how the membrane provides mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
Minuscule in size, the tectorial membrane sits on delicate hairs inside the cochlea, with small pores that control how water moves back and forth in reaction to vibrations. Researchers observed that different tones reacted differently to the amplification made by the membrane.
The middle frequencies were shown to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the scale were less affected.
It’s that progress 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 basic principles of hearing aid design haven’t changed much over the years. Tweaks and fine-tuning have helped with some enhancements, but most hearing aids are essentially made up of microphones which pick up sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. This is, unfortunately, where the drawback of this design becomes obvious.
Amplifiers, usually, are unable to differentiate between different levels of sounds, which means the ear receives increased levels of all sounds, that includes background noise. Another MIT researcher has long thought tectorial membrane exploration could lead to new hearing aid designs that offer better speech recognition for wearers.
The user of these new hearing aids could, in theory, tune in to a specific voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune specific frequencies. With this design, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds boosted to aid in reception.
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