Researchers at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most mystifying mysteries, and the insight could result in the overhauling of the design of future hearing aids.
Findings from an MIT study debunked the notion that neural processing is what lets us pick out voices. According to the study, it might actually be a biochemical filter that allows us to tune in to specific sound levels.
How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise
Only a small portion of the millions of individuals who cope with hearing loss actually use hearing aids to deal with it.
Though a major boost in one’s ability to hear can be the outcome of using a hearing aid, those that use a hearing-improvement device have typically still struggled in environments with a lot of background noise. For example, the steady buzz surrounding settings like parties and restaurants can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to single out a voice.
Having a conversation with someone in a crowded room can be stressful and frustrating and people who cope with hearing loss know this all too well.
Scientists have been meticulously investigating hearing loss for decades. Due to 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.
The Tectorial Membrane is Discovered
However, it was in 2007 that scientists identified the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. The ear is the only place on the body you will see this gel-like membrane. What really intrigued scientists was how the membrane supplies mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
Minute in size, the tectorial membrane sits on delicate hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that manage 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 frequencies of sound.
The frequencies at the highest and lowest range seemed to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study found strong amplification among the middle frequencies.
It’s that development that leads some to believe MIT’s groundbreaking discovery 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 general design principles of hearing aids have remained rather 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. This is, regrettably, where the drawback of this design becomes apparent.
All frequencies are increased with an amplification device including background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT researcher, result in new, state-of-the-art hearing aid designs which would offer better speech recognition.
The user of these new hearing aids could, in theory, tune in to an individual 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 amplified to aid in reception.
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