Researchers at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most bewildering mysteries, and the insight could result in the overhauling of the design of future hearing aids.
Results from an MIT study debunked the notion that neural processing is what lets us single out voices. According to the study, it might actually be a biochemical filter that allows us to tune in to specific levels of sound.
How Our Ability to Hear is Affected 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 outcome of using a hearing aid, settings with lots of background noise have traditionally been a problem for people who wear a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to single out voices, for example, can be severely reduced in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a steady din of background noise.
If you’re someone who suffers from hearing loss, you very likely understand how annoying and stressful it can be to have a personal conversation with someone in a crowded room.
For decades scientists have been investigating hearing loss. Due to those efforts, the way that 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 identified by scientists until 2007. The ear is the only place on the body you will find this gel-like membrane. What really fascinated scientists was how the membrane provides mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
When vibration comes into the ear, the minute tectorial membrane controls how water moves in response using small pores as it rests on little hairs in the cochlea. It was noted that the amplification created by the membrane caused a different reaction to different frequencies of sound.
The middle tones were found to have strong amplification and the frequencies at the lower and higher ends of the spectrum 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.
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 enhancements, but the majority of hearing aids are essentially comprised of microphones that pick up sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. This is, regrettably, where the shortcoming of this design becomes apparent.
Amplifiers, usually, are not able to discern between different frequencies of sounds, because of this, the ear gets increased levels of all sounds, that includes background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT researcher, result in new, innovative 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 specific frequencies. With this design, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds boosted to aid in reception.
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