Researchers at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most mystifying mysteries, and the future design of hearing aids could get an overhaul based on their findings.
The long standing notion that voices are isolated by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. Isolating individual levels of sound may actually be handled by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear
While millions of individuals fight hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt to deal with that hearing loss with the use of hearing aids.
Even though a hearing aid can give a tremendous boost to one’s ability to hear, environments with lots of background noise have typically been an issue for individuals who use a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to discriminate voices, for instance, can be drastically reduced in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a constant din of background noise.
Having a conversation with somebody in a crowded room can be stressful and frustrating and individuals who suffer from hearing loss know this all too well.
For decades scientists have been investigating hearing loss. The way that sound waves travel through the ear and how those waves are distinguished, due to this body of research, was believed to be well understood.
Scientists Discover The Tectorial Membrane
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 intrigued scientists was how the membrane provides mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
When vibration enters the ear, the tiny tectorial membrane controls how water moves in response 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 tones.
The middle frequencies were found to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the spectrum were less impacted.
It’s that development that leads some to believe MIT’s groundbreaking discovery could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately enable better single-voice recognition.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
The fundamental concepts of hearing aid design haven’t changed much over the years. Tweaks and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but most hearing aids are basically comprised of microphones which pick up sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. This is, unfortunately, where the drawback of this design becomes obvious.
Amplifiers, typically, are not able to differentiate between different frequencies of sounds, which means the ear gets boosted 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 offer better speech recognition.
In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a specific frequency range, which would permit the user to hear isolated sounds such as a single voice. Only the chosen frequencies would be increased with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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