Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) might have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most mystifying mysteries, and the insight could lead to the overhauling of the design of future hearing aids.
The enduring notion that voices are isolated by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. Isolating specific sound levels may actually be handled by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise
Only a small portion of the millions of people who cope with hearing loss actually use hearing aids to manage it.
Though a significant boost in one’s ability to hear can be the outcome of wearing a hearing aid, environments with lots of background noise have typically been an issue 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 constant din of background noise.
Having a discussion with somebody in a crowded room can be upsetting and frustrating and people who suffer from 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 thought to be well understood.
The Tectorial Membrane is Discovered
However, it was in 2007 that scientists discovered the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. The ear is the only place on the body you will see this gel-like membrane. What really intrigued scientists was how the membrane supplies mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
When vibration enters the ear, the minute tectorial membrane controls how water moves in response using small pores as it rests on little hairs in the cochlea. Researchers observed that different frequencies of sound reacted differently to the amplification made by the membrane.
The middle tones were found to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the scale were less impacted.
Some scientists think that more effective hearing aids that can better distinguish individual voices will be the result of this groundbreaking MIT study.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
The basic principles of hearing aid design haven’t changed much over the years. Tweaks and fine-tuning have helped with some enhancements, but the majority of hearing aids are basically made up of microphones that receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. This is, unfortunately, where the drawback of this design becomes obvious.
Amplifiers, normally, are unable to differentiate between different levels of sounds, which means the ear gets increased levels of all sounds, 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.
Theoretically, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune in to a distinct frequency range, which would permit the user to hear isolated sounds such as a single voice. With this design, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds increased to aid in reception.
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