One of hearing loss’s most perplexing mysteries might have been solved by scientists from the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the future design of hearing aids might 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. According to the study, it may actually be a biochemical filter that enables us to tune in to individual levels of sound.
How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise
While millions of individuals battle hearing loss, only a fraction of them try to overcome that hearing loss using hearing aids.
Though a hearing aid can give a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, environments with lots of background noise have traditionally been an issue for individuals who wear a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to single out voices, for example, can be severely limited in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a constant din of background noise.
Having a discussion with someone in a crowded room can be stressful and frustrating and individuals who suffer from hearing loss know this all too well.
Scientists have been closely studying hearing loss for decades. 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.
Scientists Identify The Tectorial Membrane
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t identified by scientists until 2007. The ear is the only place on the body you will find this gel-like membrane. What really fascinated scientists was how the membrane provides mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
Minute in size, the tectorial membrane sits on tiny hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that control how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. It was noted 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 tones at the lower and higher ends of the scale were less impacted.
It’s that progress 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.
Hearing Aid Design of The Future
For years, the basic design concepts of hearing aids have remained fairly unchanged. A microphone to detect sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the basic components of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained unchanged. This is, unfortunately, where the drawback of this design becomes obvious.
Amplifiers, normally, are unable to discern between different frequencies of sounds, which means the ear receives increased levels of all sounds, that includes background noise. Another MIT scientist has long believed tectorial membrane exploration could result in new hearing aid designs that provide better speech recognition for wearers.
In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a distinct frequency range, which would permit the user to hear isolated sounds like a single voice. With this design, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds increased to aid in reception.
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