How Research Helps You Hear

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

One of hearing loss’s most perplexing mysteries may have been solved by scientists from the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the future design of hearing aids could get an overhaul in line with their findings.

Findings from an MIT study debunked the belief that neural processing is what allows us to single out voices. According to the study, it may actually be a biochemical filter that enables us to tune in to specific levels of sound.

How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear

Only a small portion of the millions of people who suffer from hearing loss actually use hearing aids to manage it.

Though a significant boost in one’s ability to hear can be the outcome of using a hearing aid, people who wear a hearing-improvement device have traditionally still had trouble in environments with a lot of background noise. For example, the steady buzz surrounding settings like restaurants and parties can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to single out a voice.

Having a discussion with somebody in a crowded room can be stressful and annoying and people who suffer from hearing loss know this all too well.

Scientists have been meticulously investigating hearing loss for decades. The way that sound waves travel through the ear and how those waves are distinguished, due to this body of research, was believed to be well understood.

Scientists Discover 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 see this gel-like membrane. The deciphering and delineation of sound is accomplished by a mechanical filtering carried out by this membrane and that might be the most intriguing thing.

When vibration comes into the ear, the tiny tectorial membrane manages how water moves in reaction using small pores as it sits on little hairs in the cochlea. It was noted that the amplification created by the membrane caused a different reaction to different frequencies of sound.

The middle frequencies were found to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the scale were less impacted.

Some scientists think that more effective hearing aids that can better identify individual voices will be the outcome of this groundbreaking MIT study.

The Future of Hearing Aid Design

The fundamental principles of hearing aid design haven’t changed much over the years. A microphone to pick up sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the general components of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained the same. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes clear.

All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device 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.

In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a specific frequency range, which would allow the wearer to hear isolated sounds such as a single voice. With this concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds amplified to aid in reception.

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