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 may get an overhaul in line with their findings.
The enduring idea 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 specific levels of sound.
How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise
While millions of individuals battle hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt to combat 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, those who use a hearing-improvement device have traditionally still struggled in settings with copious amounts of background noise. For instance, the steady buzz surrounding settings like restaurants and parties can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to discriminate a voice.
If you’re a person who suffers from hearing loss, you very likely recognize how annoying and upsetting it can be to have a personal conversation with someone in a crowded room.
Scientists have been closely investigating hearing loss for decades. As a result of 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.
The Tectorial Membrane is Discovered
However, it was in 2007 that scientists identified the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. The ear is the only place on the body you will see this gel-like membrane. What really fascinated scientists was how the membrane supplies mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
Minute in size, the tectorial membrane rests on tiny hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that manage how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. It was observed that the amplification created by the membrane caused a different reaction to different frequencies of sound.
The tones at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum seemed to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study found strong amplification among the middle frequencies.
It’s that progress 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 recognition.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
For years, the basic design concepts of hearing aids have remained fairly unchanged. 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 obvious.
All frequencies are increased with an amplification device and that includes background noise. Another MIT scientist has long thought tectorial membrane research could result in new hearing aid designs that offer better speech recognition for users.
Theoretically, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune in to a specific frequency range, which would allow the wearer to hear isolated sounds such as a single voice. With this design, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds amplified to aid in reception.
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