Researchers at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most bewildering mysteries, and the future design of hearing aids may get an overhaul in line with their findings.
Findings from an MIT study debunked the notion that neural processing is what lets us pick out voices. According to the study, it may actually be a biochemical filter that enables us to tune in to specific sound levels.
How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise
While millions of people battle hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt to deal with that hearing loss using hearing aids.
Although a hearing aid can provide a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, environments with lots of background noise have typically been an issue for individuals who use a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to discriminate voices, for instance, can be seriously 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 people who deal with hearing loss know this all too well.
For decades scientists have been studying hearing loss. 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. You won’t see this microscopic membrane composed of a gel-like material in any other parts of the body. The deciphering and delineation of sound is achieved by a mechanical filtering carried out by this membrane and that might be the most intriguing thing.
Minuscule in size, the tectorial membrane rests on delicate hairs inside the cochlea, with small pores that control 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 range appeared to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification in the middle frequencies.
It’s that development that leads some scientists to believe MIT’s groundbreaking discovery could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately enable better single-voice identification.
Hearing Aid Design of The Future
For years, the basic design principles of hearing aids have remained rather unchanged. A microphone to pick up sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the general elements of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained the same. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s drawbacks becomes clear.
All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device and 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 provide better speech recognition.
The user of these new hearing aids could, in theory, tune in to a specific voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune distinct frequencies. With this concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds boosted to aid in reception.
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