Researchers at the famed 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 enduring belief that voices are isolated by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. Isolating individual sound levels may actually be managed by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear
While millions of people fight hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt to combat that hearing loss using hearing aids.
Although a hearing aid can provide a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, people who use a hearing-improvement device have commonly still struggled in environments with copious amounts of background noise. A person’s ability to discriminate voices, for example, can be drastically limited in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a continuous din of background noise.
Having a discussion with somebody in a crowded room can be stressful and annoying and individuals who deal with hearing loss know this all too well.
Scientists have been closely studying hearing loss for decades. The way that sound waves move through the ear and how those waves are distinguished, due to this body of research, was believed to be well understood.
The Tectorial Membrane is Identified
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t identified by scientists until 2007. The ear is the only place on the body you will see this gel-like membrane. What really intrigued scientists was how the membrane provides mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
Minuscule in size, the tectorial membrane sits on little hairs inside the cochlea, with small pores that manage how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. It was noted that the amplification produced by the membrane caused a different reaction to different tones.
The tones at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum appeared to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification in the middle frequencies.
It’s that progress that leads some scientists to believe MIT’s groundbreaking breakthrough could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately allow for better single-voice identification.
Hearing Aid Design of The Future
The fundamental principles of hearing aid design haven’t changed much over the years. A microphone to detect sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the general elements of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained unchanged. This is, regrettably, where the drawback of this design becomes obvious.
All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device and that includes background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, result in new, innovative hearing aid designs which would provide better speech recognition.
In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune in to a distinct frequency range, which would allow the wearer to hear isolated sounds like a single voice. Only the chosen frequencies would be boosted with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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