How Research Helps You Hear

Researchers working to improve hearing aids with new technology and algorithms.

One of hearing loss’s most perplexing mysteries may have been solved by scientists from the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the insight could lead to the modification of the design of future hearing aids.

Results from an MIT study debunked the notion that neural processing is what allows us to pick out voices. According to the study, it may actually be a biochemical filter that allows us to tune in to individual sound levels.

How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear

Only a small portion of the millions of people who suffer from hearing loss actually use hearing aids to manage it.

Although a hearing aid can give a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, environments with a lot of background noise have traditionally been an issue for people who use a hearing improvement device. For instance, the constant buzz surrounding settings like restaurants and parties can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to single out a voice.

If you’re someone who suffers from hearing loss, you very likely understand how frustrating and stressful it can be to have a personal conversation with somebody in a crowded room.

Scientists have been meticulously 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 discovered the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t find this microscopic membrane composed of a gel-like material in any other parts of the body. The deciphering and delineation of sound is accomplished by a mechanical filtering performed by this membrane and that might be the most intriguing thing.

When vibration enters the ear, the tiny tectorial membrane controls how water moves in response using small pores as it rests on little hairs in the cochlea. Researchers noted that different frequencies of sound reacted differently to the amplification produced by the membrane.

The tones at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum seemed to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification in the middle frequencies.

Some scientists think 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 basic design principles of hearing aids have remained relatively unchanged. A microphone to pick up sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the basic elements of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained unchanged. This is, unfortunately, where the drawback of this design becomes apparent.

All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device and that includes background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT researcher, lead to new, innovative hearing aid designs which would provide better speech recognition.

Theoretically, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a specific frequency range, which would enable the user to hear isolated sounds such as a single voice. With this concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds boosted to aid in reception.

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