How Research Helps You Hear

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

Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) might have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most mystifying mysteries, and the revelation could lead to the modification of the design of future hearing aids.

Findings from an MIT study debunked the notion that neural processing is what allows us to single out voices. Tuning into individual levels of sound may actually be handled by a biochemical filter according to this study.

How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear

While millions of individuals battle hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt to deal with that hearing loss using hearing aids.

Although a hearing aid can give a tremendous boost to one’s ability to hear, settings with lots of background noise have typically been an issue for individuals who wear a hearing improvement device. For instance, the steady buzz surrounding settings like parties and restaurants can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to single out a voice.

If you’re someone who is experiencing hearing loss, you most likely understand how frustrating and upsetting it can be to have a one-on-one conversation with somebody in a crowded room.

Scientists have been meticulously studying 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.

Scientists Discover The Tectorial Membrane

But the tectorial membrane wasn’t discovered by scientists until 2007. You won’t see 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 may be the most intriguing thing.

Minute in size, the tectorial membrane sits on tiny hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that manage 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 tones.

The middle tones were shown to have strong amplification and the frequencies at the lower and higher ends of the spectrum were less affected.

It’s that development 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.

Hearing Aid Design of The Future

For years, the general design concepts of hearing aids have remained fairly unchanged. Tweaks and fine-tuning have helped with some enhancements, but most hearing aids are basically comprised of microphones which receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s drawbacks becomes apparent.

Amplifiers, normally, are unable to discern between different levels of sounds, which means the ear gets increased levels of all sounds, including background noise. Another MIT researcher has long believed tectorial membrane research could result in new hearing aid designs that offer better speech recognition for wearers.

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. Only the desired frequencies would be amplified with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.

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