Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may 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 notion that voices are isolated by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. Tuning into specific levels of sound may actually be handled by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise
Only a small fraction of the millions of individuals who cope with hearing loss actually use hearing aids to manage it.
Even though a hearing aid can give a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, settings with a lot of background noise have typically been a problem for people who wear a hearing improvement device. For instance, the constant buzz associated with settings like restaurants and parties can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to single out a voice.
Having a discussion with somebody in a crowded room can be upsetting and annoying and individuals who deal with hearing loss know this all too well.
Scientists have been closely studying hearing loss for decades. The way that sound waves travel through the ear and how those waves are differentiated, due to this body of research, was believed to be well understood.
The Tectorial Membrane is Discovered
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t identified by scientists until 2007. You won’t find this microscopic membrane composed of a gel-like material in any other parts of the body. 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 delicate hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that control how water moves back and forth in reaction to vibrations. It was observed that the amplification created by the membrane caused a different reaction to different tones.
The middle frequencies were found to have strong amplification and the frequencies at the lower and higher ends of the spectrum were less impacted.
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 identification.
Hearing Aid Design of The Future
The fundamental concepts of hearing aid design haven’t changed very much over the years. Adjustments 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. Unfortunately, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes apparent.
All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device including background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, result in new, state-of-the-art hearing aid designs which would offer better speech recognition.
In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a distinct frequency range, which would permit the user to hear isolated sounds like a single voice. With this design, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds boosted to aid in reception.
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