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 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. Tuning into individual sound levels might actually be handled by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Background Noise Effects Our Ability to Hear
Only a small portion of the millions of individuals who suffer from hearing loss actually use hearing aids to deal with it.
Though a hearing aid can give a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, people who use a hearing-improvement device have typically still had trouble in environments with a lot of background noise. A person’s ability to single out voices, for example, can be severely reduced in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a constant din of background noise.
If you’re a person who is experiencing hearing loss, you very likely recognize how annoying and stressful it can be to have a one-on-one conversation with somebody in a crowded room.
For decades scientists have been studying hearing loss. Due to those efforts, the way in which 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 Identified
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t discovered by scientists until 2007. You won’t see this microscopic membrane made of a gel-like material in any other parts of the body. What really fascinated scientists was how the membrane supplies mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
When vibration enters the ear, the tiny tectorial membrane controls how water moves in response using small pores as it sits on little hairs in the cochlea. It was noted that the amplification produced by the membrane caused a different reaction to different tones.
The middle frequencies were shown to have strong amplification and the frequencies at the lower and higher ends of the spectrum were less impacted.
It’s that development that leads some to believe MIT’s groundbreaking breakthrough could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately allow for better single-voice identification.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
For years, the general design principles of hearing aids have remained fairly unchanged. A microphone to pick up sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the basic components of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained unchanged. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes apparent.
Amplifiers, usually, are not able to discern between different frequencies of sounds, which means the ear receives increased levels of all sounds, including background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, result in new, innovative hearing aid designs which would offer better speech recognition.
The user of these new hearing aids could, theoretically, tune in to an individual voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune specific frequencies. With this concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds boosted to aid in reception.
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