Researchers at the famous 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 based on 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 allows us to tune in to specific sound levels.
How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear
While millions of individuals battle hearing loss, only a fraction of them try to overcome that hearing loss using hearing aids.
Even though a hearing aid can provide a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, settings with a lot of background noise have typically been an issue 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 continuous din of background noise.
Having a conversation with someone in a crowded room can be upsetting and annoying and individuals who suffer from hearing loss know this all too well.
For decades scientists have been investigating hearing loss. 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.
The Tectorial Membrane is Discovered
However, it was in 2007 that scientists discovered the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. 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 supplies mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
Minuscule in size, the tectorial membrane rests on little hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that manage how water moves back and forth in reaction to vibrations. Researchers noticed that different tones reacted differently to the amplification made by the membrane.
The middle tones were found to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the spectrum were less affected.
Some scientists believe that more effective hearing aids that can better distinguish individual voices will be the outcome of this groundbreaking MIT study.
Hearing Aid Design of The Future
For years, the general design concepts of hearing aids have remained relatively unchanged. A microphone to detect sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the basic elements of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained unchanged. Unfortunately, that’s where one of the design’s drawbacks becomes clear.
All frequencies are increased with an amplification device including background noise. Another MIT scientist has long believed tectorial membrane research could lead to 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 like a single voice. Only the desired frequencies would be boosted with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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