Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may 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.
Results from an MIT study debunked the idea that neural processing is what allows us to pick out voices. Isolating individual sound levels may actually be managed by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise
Only a small portion of the millions of individuals who suffer from hearing loss actually use hearing aids to manage it.
Though a significant boost in one’s ability to hear can be the result of wearing a hearing aid, those who use a hearing-improvement device have traditionally still struggled in settings with a lot of background noise. A person’s ability to single out voices, for instance, can be seriously limited in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a steady din of background noise.
Having a conversation with somebody in a crowded room can be stressful and annoying and people who deal with hearing loss know this all too well.
Scientists have been closely investigating hearing loss for decades. The way that sound waves move through the ear and how those waves are differentiated, due to this body of research, was believed to be well understood.
Scientists Identify The Tectorial Membrane
However, it was in 2007 that scientists identified the tectorial membrane inside of the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t see this microscopic membrane made of a gel-like substance in any other parts of the body. The deciphering and delineation of sound is achieved by a mechanical filtering carried out by this membrane and that might be the most intriguing thing.
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. It was noted that the amplification created by the membrane caused a different reaction to different tones.
The middle tones were found to have strong amplification and the frequencies at the lower and higher ends of the spectrum were less affected.
It’s that progress 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.
Hearing Aid Design of The Future
For years, the general design principles of hearing aids have remained rather unchanged. A microphone to detect sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the general components of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained the same. Unfortunately, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes apparent.
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.
In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a distinct frequency range, which would enable the wearer to hear isolated sounds like a single voice. Only the desired frequencies would be increased with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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