Researchers working to improve hearing aids with new technology and algorithms.

Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most mystifying mysteries, and the future design of hearing aids could get an overhaul in line with their findings.

Findings from an MIT study debunked the notion that neural processing is what allows us to pick out voices. According to the study, it may actually be a biochemical filter that allows us to tune in to individual sound levels.

How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise

Only a small fraction of the millions of people who cope with hearing loss actually use hearing aids to manage it.

Although a hearing aid can give a tremendous boost to one’s ability to hear, people that wear a hearing-improvement device have typically still had trouble in environments with copious amounts of background noise. For example, the continuous buzz surrounding settings like parties and restaurants can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to single out a voice.

Having a discussion with somebody in a crowded room can be stressful and frustrating and people who cope with hearing loss know this all too well.

For decades scientists have been investigating hearing loss. As a result of those efforts, the way in which sound waves travel throughout the inner ear, and how the ear distinguishes different frequencies of sounds, 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. You won’t see this microscopic membrane made of a gel-like material in any other parts of the body. The deciphering and delineation of sound is achieved by a mechanical filtering performed by this membrane and that might be the most intriguing thing.

When vibration enters the ear, the tiny tectorial membrane controls how water moves in reaction using small pores as it sits on little hairs in the cochlea. Researchers noted that different frequencies of sound reacted differently to the amplification produced by the membrane.

The frequencies at the highest and lowest range seemed to be less affected by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification in the middle tones.

Some scientists think that more effective hearing aids that can better distinguish individual voices will be the outcome of this groundbreaking MIT study.

The Future of Hearing Aid Design

The basic principles of hearing aid design haven’t changed very much over the years. A microphone to pick up sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the basic elements of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained unchanged. This is, unfortunately, where the drawback of this design becomes apparent.

Amplifiers, typically, are unable to discern between different frequencies of sounds, because of this, the ear receives increased levels of all sounds, that includes background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT researcher, result in new, state-of-the-art hearing aid designs which would offer 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. Only the chosen frequencies would be boosted with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.

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References

https://www.machinedesign.com/motion-control/researchers-discover-secret-how-we-can-pick-out-voice-crowd
http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-01/16/c_137749535.htm
https://medicalxpress.com/news/2010-11-tuning-mechanism.html

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