One of hearing loss’s most perplexing mysteries may have been solved by scientists from the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the future design of hearing aids could get an overhaul based on their findings.
The long standing idea that voices are singled out by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. According to the study, it might actually be a biochemical filter that allows us to tune in to individual levels of sound.
How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear
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 provide a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, settings with lots of background noise have typically been an issue for individuals who wear a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to discriminate voices, for instance, can be seriously reduced in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a constant din of background noise.
If you’re someone who is experiencing hearing loss, you very likely understand how frustrating and stressful it can be to have a one-on-one conversation with somebody in a crowded room.
Scientists have been closely investigating 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 thought to be well understood.
Scientists Discover The Tectorial Membrane
However, it was in 2007 that scientists identified the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t find this microscopic membrane made of a gel-like substance 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.
Minuscule in size, the tectorial membrane sits on delicate hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that control how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. It was noted that the amplification produced by the membrane caused a different reaction to different frequencies of sound.
The tones at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum appeared to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification in the middle tones.
Some scientists think that more effective hearing aids that can better identify individual voices will be the outcome of this groundbreaking MIT study.
Hearing Aid Design of The Future
The fundamental concepts of hearing aid design haven’t changed much over the years. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but most hearing aids are essentially made up of microphones that pick up 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 researcher, lead to new, innovative hearing aid designs which would provide better speech recognition.
In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune in to a distinct frequency range, which would enable the wearer to hear isolated sounds such as a single voice. With this concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds increased to aid in reception.
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