Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most bewildering mysteries, and the insight could lead to the overhauling of the design of future hearing aids.
Results from an MIT study debunked the belief that neural processing is what allows us to single out voices. Isolating specific levels of sound might actually be managed by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise
Only a small fraction of the millions of individuals who cope with hearing loss actually use hearing aids to manage it.
Though a hearing aid can give a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, people that wear a hearing-improvement device have typically still struggled in environments with a lot of background noise. A person’s ability to single out voices, for instance, can be drastically limited in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a continuous din of background noise.
Having a discussion with someone in a crowded room can be upsetting and annoying and individuals who suffer from hearing loss know this all too well.
Scientists have been meticulously 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 thought to be well understood.
Scientists Identify The Tectorial Membrane
However, it was in 2007 that scientists discovered the tectorial membrane inside of the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t see this microscopic membrane made of a gel-like substance in any other parts of the body. What really intrigued scientists was how the membrane provides mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
When vibration enters the ear, the tiny tectorial membrane controls how water moves in reaction using small pores as it rests on little hairs in the cochlea. Researchers noted that different tones reacted differently to the amplification made by the membrane.
The middle frequencies were shown to have strong amplification and the frequencies at the lower and higher ends of the spectrum were less impacted.
Some scientists believe that more effective hearing aids that can better distinguish individual voices will be the result of this groundbreaking MIT study.
Hearing Aid Design of The Future
For years, the general design principles of hearing aids have remained fairly unchanged. 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. This is, regrettably, where the drawback of this design becomes obvious.
Amplifiers, usually, are not able to discern between different frequencies of sounds, which means the ear gets increased levels of all sounds, that includes background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT researcher, lead to new, state-of-the-art hearing aid designs which would offer better speech recognition.
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 concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds boosted to aid in reception.
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