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Today’s hearing aids have come a long way; existing models are highly effective and feature amazing digital functions, such as wireless connectivity, that radically enhance a person’s ability to hear along with their overall quality of life.

But there is still room for improvement.

Particularly, in some scenarios hearing aids have some trouble with two things:

  1. Locating the source of sound
  2. Cutting out background noise

But that may soon change, as the newest research in hearing aid design is being guided from a unusual source: the world of insects.

Why insects hold the answer to better hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the equivalent problem relating to hearing: the transformation and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What scientists are discovering is that the mechanism insects use to solve this problem is in many ways more powerful than our own.

The organs of hearing in an insect are more compact and more sensitive to a wider range of frequencies, allowing the insect to perceive sounds humans are unable to hear. Insects also can sense the directionality and distance of sound in ways more accurate than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has typically been guided by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have tended to offer simple amplification of incoming sound and transmission to the middle ear. But scientists are now asking a completely different question.

Borrowing inspiration from the natural world, they’re asking how nature—and its hundreds of millions of years of evolution—has attempted to solve the problem of sensing and perceiving sound. By investigating the hearing mechanism of different insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, researchers can borrow the best from each to make a brand new mechanism that can be used in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.

Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones

Experts from University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and the MRC/CSO Institute for Hearing Research (IHR) at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, will be testing hearing aids equipped with a unique type of miniature microphone inspired by insects.

The hope is that the new hearing aids will accomplish three things:

  1. More energy-efficient microphones and electronics that will eventually result in smaller hearing aids, lower power usage, and longer battery life.
  2. The ability to more precisely locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while eliminating background noise.

Researchers will also be experimenting with 3D printing techniques to improve the design and ergonomics of the new hearing aids.

The future of hearing aids

For virtually all of their history, hearing aids have been produced with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an effort to reproduce the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are constructing a new set of goals. Instead of attempting to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can ENHANCE it.

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