Researchers at the famed 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 belief that neural processing is what lets us pick out voices. Isolating individual sound levels may actually be managed by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Background Noise Effects Our Ability to Hear
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 provide a tremendous boost to one’s ability to hear, environments with a lot of background noise have typically been a problem for people who use a hearing improvement device. 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 stressful and frustrating and people who suffer from hearing loss know this all too well.
For decades scientists have been investigating hearing loss. 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.
The Tectorial Membrane is Identified
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t discovered by scientists until 2007. The ear is the only place on the body you will find this gel-like membrane. What really intrigued scientists was how the membrane supplies mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
When vibration comes into the ear, the minute tectorial membrane manages how water moves in response 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 tones were shown to have strong amplification and the frequencies at the lower and higher ends of the scale were less affected.
It’s that progress that leads some scientists to believe MIT’s groundbreaking discovery could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately allow for better single-voice recognition.
Hearing Aid Design of The Future
For years, the general design principles of hearing aids have remained fairly unchanged. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but the majority of hearing aids are basically made up of microphones that receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes apparent.
Amplifiers, normally, are unable to discern between different frequencies of sounds, because of this, the ear receives boosted levels of all sounds, including background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, lead to new, state-of-the-art hearing aid designs which would provide better speech recognition.
The user of these new hearing aids could, theoretically, tune in to an individual voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune distinct frequencies. Only the chosen frequencies would be amplified with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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