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 might get an overhaul based on their findings.

Findings from an MIT study debunked the belief that neural processing is what allows us to single out voices. Tuning into specific levels of sound may actually be handled by a biochemical filter according to this study.

How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise

While millions of people battle hearing loss, only a fraction of them try to overcome that hearing loss using hearing aids.

Although a hearing aid can provide a tremendous boost to one’s ability to hear, environments with a lot of background noise have typically been a problem for people who use a hearing improvement device. For example, the continuous buzz surrounding settings like restaurants and parties can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to single out a voice.

Having a conversation with somebody in a crowded room can be stressful and annoying and individuals who cope with hearing loss know this all too well.

For decades scientists have been studying hearing loss. Due to 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.

The Tectorial Membrane is Discovered

However, it was in 2007 that scientists identified the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t see this microscopic membrane composed of a gel-like substance in any other parts of the body. The deciphering and delineation of sound is accomplished by a mechanical filtering performed by this membrane and that may be the most fascinating thing.

When vibration comes into 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 observed that different tones reacted differently to the amplification produced by the membrane.

The middle frequencies were found to have strong amplification and the frequencies at the lower and higher ends of the scale were less affected.

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

Hearing Aid Design of The Future

For years, the basic design principles of hearing aids have remained relatively unchanged. A microphone to pick up sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the basic components of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained the same. This is, unfortunately, where the shortcoming of this design becomes obvious.

All frequencies are increased with an amplification device including background noise. Another MIT researcher has long believed tectorial membrane research could lead to new hearing aid designs that offer better speech recognition for users.

In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune in to a specific frequency range, which would enable the user to hear isolated sounds like a single voice. With this concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds increased to aid in reception.

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