Researchers at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most mystifying mysteries, and the future design of hearing aids might get an overhaul based on their findings.
The enduring idea that voices are singled out by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. Tuning into specific levels of sound may actually be managed by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear
Only a small fraction of the millions of people who suffer from hearing loss actually use hearing aids to deal with it.
Even though a hearing aid can give a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, settings with lots of background noise have traditionally been a problem for individuals who use a hearing improvement device. For example, the constant buzz surrounding settings like parties and restaurants can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to discriminate a voice.
If you’re a person who is experiencing hearing loss, you very likely recognize how frustrating and stressful it can be to have a one-on-one conversation with someone in a crowded room.
Scientists have been meticulously studying 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.
The Tectorial Membrane is Discovered
However, it was in 2007 that scientists identified the tectorial membrane inside of 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. 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.
When vibration enters the ear, the minute tectorial membrane manages how water moves in reaction using small pores as it rests on little hairs in the cochlea. It was noted that the amplification created by the membrane caused a different reaction to different tones.
The middle frequencies were found to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the scale were less impacted.
Some scientists believe that more effective hearing aids that can better distinguish individual voices will be the result of this groundbreaking MIT study.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
For years, the general design principles of hearing aids have remained fairly unchanged. Tweaks and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but most hearing aids are basically made up of microphones that receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. This is, regrettably, 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 believed tectorial membrane research could result in new hearing aid designs that offer better speech recognition for users.
The user of these new hearing aids could, in theory, tune in to a specific voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune specific frequencies. With this design, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds increased to aid in reception.
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