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 could get an overhaul in line with their findings.
Findings from an MIT study debunked the belief that neural processing is what allows us to pick out voices. According to the study, it might actually be a biochemical filter that enables us to tune in to individual levels of sound.
How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise
While millions of people fight hearing loss, only a fraction of them try to deal with that hearing loss with the use of hearing aids.
Though a significant boost in one’s ability to hear can be the outcome of using a hearing aid, environments with a lot of background noise have typically been an issue for individuals who wear a hearing improvement device. For example, the continuous 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 know how annoying and upsetting it can be to have a one-on-one conversation with somebody in a crowded room.
Scientists have been meticulously investigating hearing loss for decades. The way that sound waves move through the ear and how those waves are differentiated, due to this body of research, was thought to be well understood.
Scientists Identify The Tectorial Membrane
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 achieved by a mechanical filtering carried out by this membrane and that may be the most fascinating thing.
Minuscule in size, the tectorial membrane rests on tiny hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that control 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 middle frequencies were found to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the scale were less impacted.
It’s that progress that leads some to believe MIT’s groundbreaking discovery could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately enable better single-voice identification.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
The basic principles of hearing aid design haven’t changed much over the years. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but most hearing aids are essentially made up of microphones that receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Unfortunately, that’s where one of the design’s drawbacks becomes evident.
All frequencies are increased with an amplification device including background noise. Another MIT researcher has long believed tectorial membrane research could lead to new hearing aid designs that provide 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 chosen frequencies would be increased with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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