Hearing loss is a global health crisis, with the number of those struggling with the condition estimated to double by 2060. With so many poised to suffer from hearing loss at some time in the future, new technology and treatment options are attempting to keep up. Hearing aids have become incredibly sophisticated, looking more like super-computers with each passing year, but many who could directly benefit from hearing aids still choose not to. Numerous reasons are to blame, such as cost, stigma, or the belief that they do not work, especially in noisy settings. For many struggling with hearing loss, the most common complaint is difficulty understanding conversations in noisy environments, often known as the “cocktail party effect”. To address this common problem, Dr. Nima Mesgrani has devised a new hearing aid idea that sounds more like science-fiction than science-fact, but thanks to previous scientific breakthroughs, it could be entirely possible: Brain-controlled hearing aids.
For many who choose not to use hearing aids, hearing aid value was one of the most important issues stopping them from using their devices. Unfortunately, the belief that hearing aids do not provide a large enough benefit to justify the use and price is actually quite common. A 2013 study conducted by the University of Nottingham’s School of Clinical Sciences analyzed trends in 7 studies dating back over two decades that researched why many did not utilize hearing aids. After reviewing these studies, the University of Nottingham’s research had concluded that “the most significant reasons appear to be associated with ‘hearing aid value/speech clarity’, and ‘fit and comfort of the hearing aid’. Seven studies reported that participants had problems relating to ‘hearing aid value’, the most significant being that the hearing aid does not help or provides poor benefit.”
But the second most significant reason highlighted why many choose to struggle without their hearing device. Researchers concluded that “the next most common reason in this category was ‘difficulty in noisy situations/background noise’,” emphasizing the failures of current hearing aids and the limits of their technology. “One major factor that reduces the enthusiasm for hearing aids is their failure to restore the ability to selectively perceive a speaker because the devices amplify the background noise together with the target speech,” explains Dr. Mesgrani, a shortcoming he hopes to fix.
Previous research has proven that the human auditory cortex has an incredible ability to track the voice of a speaker that we are focusing on, even in noisy environments. This scientific breakthrough has buoyed the prospect of ideas such as Dr. Mesgrani’s, making hearing aids that constantly monitors the user’s brainwaves and amplifying selected voices, a process called auditory attention decoding (AAD), a true possibility.
There are still many technological barriers to surpass first though. “multiple problems must be resolved to make a brain-controlled hearing aid feasible,” Dr. Mesgrani admits, “including noninvasive and nonintrusive methods to measure the neural signals and designing effective decoding algorithms for accurate and rapid detection of attentional focus.” But there is hope for the future as Dr. Mesgrani explains “This research will lead to a novel understanding of the neural mechanisms that enable a listener to focus on a speaker in multi-talker speech conditions, thus bringing brain-controlled hearing aid technologies a significant step closer to reality.”