One of hearing loss’s most puzzling mysteries might have been solved by scientists from the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the future design of hearing aids could get an overhaul in line with 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 may actually be a biochemical filter that allows us to tune in to specific sound levels.
How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear
Only a small fraction of the millions of people who suffer from hearing loss actually use hearing aids to manage it.
Although a hearing aid can provide a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, those who use a hearing-improvement device have typically still struggled in environments with a lot of background noise. A person’s ability to single out voices, for example, can be seriously reduced in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a continuous din of background noise.
Having a conversation with someone in a crowded room can be stressful and frustrating and people who deal with hearing loss know this all too well.
For decades scientists have been investigating hearing loss. As a result of 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.
Scientists Identify The Tectorial Membrane
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 find this gel-like membrane. 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 inside 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 frequencies at the highest and lowest range appeared to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification in the middle frequencies.
It’s that development that leads some scientists 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 principles 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 basically 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 clear.
All frequencies are increased with an amplification device including 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 concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds amplified to aid in reception.
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