Modern day hearing aids have come a long way; present models are remarkably effective and come with remarkable digital capabilities, like wireless connectivity, that profoundly enhance a person’s ability to hear along with their overall quality of life.

But there is still room for improvement.

Particularly, in some instances hearing aids have some difficulty with two things:

  1. Locating the source of sound
  2. Eliminating background noise

But that may soon change, as the most recent research in hearing aid design is being guided from a unusual source: the world of insects.

Why insects hold the secret to improved hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the equivalent problem when it comes to hearing: the conversion and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What scientists are identifying is that the method insects use to solve this problem is in ways more efficient than our own.

The internal organs of hearing in an insect are more compact and more sensitive to a larger range of frequencies, permitting the insect to perceive sounds humans cannot hear. Insects also can identify the directionality and distance of sound in ways more exact than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has ordinarily been guided by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have tended to provide straightforward amplification of inbound sound and transmission to the middle ear. But scientists are now asking a different question.

Finding inspiration from the natural world, they’re inquiring how nature—and its hundreds of millions of years of evolution—has attempted to solve the problem of sensing and perceiving sound. By assessing the hearing mechanism of several insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, researchers can borrow the best from each to make a completely new mechanism that can be applied in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.

Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones

Researchers from University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and the MRC/CSO Institute for Hearing Research (IHR) at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, will be testing hearing aids outfitted with a unique kind of miniature microphone inspired by insects.

The hope is that the new hearing aids will achieve three things:

  1. More energy-efficient microphones and electronics that will eventually lead to smaller hearing aids, lower power usage, and longer battery life.
  2. The ability to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while cutting out background noise.

Researchers will also be trying out 3D printing methods to improve the design and ergonomics of the new hearing aids.

The future of hearing aids

For the majority of their history, hearing aids have been engineered with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an attempt to replicate the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are constructing a new set of goals. Instead of attempting to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can IMPROVE it.