Researchers at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) might have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most mystifying mysteries, and the revelation could result in the modification of the design of future hearing aids.
The long standing belief that voices are isolated by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. According to the study, it may actually be a biochemical filter that allows us to tune in to individual sound levels.
How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise
While millions of people battle hearing loss, only a fraction of them try to combat that hearing loss using hearing aids.
Although a hearing aid can give a tremendous boost to one’s ability to hear, settings with lots of background noise have traditionally been a problem for individuals who use a hearing improvement device. 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 discussion with someone in a crowded room can be stressful and frustrating and individuals who deal with hearing loss know this all too well.
Scientists have been meticulously studying 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 thought to be well understood.
The Tectorial Membrane is Identified
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 fascinated scientists was how the membrane provides mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
Minute in size, the tectorial membrane sits on little hairs inside the cochlea, with small pores that control how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. It was observed that the amplification created by the membrane caused a different reaction to different tones.
The tones at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum appeared to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study found strong amplification among the middle tones.
Some scientists think that more effective hearing aids that can better identify individual voices will be the result of this groundbreaking MIT study.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
The basic principles of hearing aid design haven’t changed very much over the years. Tweaks and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but the majority of hearing aids are essentially made up of microphones which receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. This is, unfortunately, where the shortcoming of this design becomes obvious.
All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device including background noise. Another MIT scientist has long believed tectorial membrane research could lead to new hearing aid designs that provide better speech recognition for wearers.
In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a distinct frequency range, which would enable the wearer to hear isolated sounds like a single voice. Only the chosen frequencies would be boosted with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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