Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most bewildering mysteries, and the revelation could result in the overhauling of the design of future hearing aids.
Results from an MIT study debunked the belief that neural processing is what lets us pick out voices. According to the study, it might actually be a biochemical filter that allows us to tune in to individual sound levels.
How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise
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 result of using a hearing aid, environments with lots of background noise have typically been an issue for people who use a hearing improvement device. For example, the continuous buzz associated with settings like parties and restaurants can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to single out a voice.
If you’re someone who is experiencing hearing loss, you very likely know how frustrating and upsetting it can be to have a personal conversation with somebody in a crowded room.
Scientists have been closely investigating hearing loss for decades. As a result of 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
However, it was in 2007 that scientists discovered the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. 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 accomplished by a mechanical filtering performed by this membrane and that may be the most intriguing thing.
When vibration comes into the ear, the minute tectorial membrane manages how water moves in reaction using small pores as it sits on little hairs in the cochlea. It was observed that the amplification produced by the membrane caused a different reaction to different frequencies of sound.
The frequencies at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum seemed to be less affected by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification in the middle tones.
Some scientists believe 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 fundamental principles of hearing aid design haven’t changed much over the years. Tweaks and fine-tuning have helped with some enhancements, but the majority of hearing aids are basically comprised of microphones which receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes apparent.
All frequencies are increased with an amplification device and that includes background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, result in new, innovative hearing aid designs which would provide better speech recognition.
In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a distinct 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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