One of hearing loss’s most perplexing mysteries may have been solved by scientists from the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the future design of hearing aids could get an overhaul based on their findings.
The enduring notion that voices are singled out by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. According to the study, it might actually be a biochemical filter that allows us to tune in to individual levels of sound.
How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise
While millions of people fight hearing loss, only a fraction of them try to deal with that hearing loss using hearing aids.
Though a major boost in one’s ability to hear can be the outcome of wearing a hearing aid, environments with lots of background noise have typically been an issue for people who wear a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to single out voices, for instance, can be severely reduced in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a continuous din of background noise.
Having a discussion with someone in a crowded room can be upsetting and frustrating and people who cope with hearing loss know this all too well.
Scientists have been closely investigating hearing loss for decades. 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 Identified
However, it was in 2007 that scientists identified the tectorial membrane inside of the inner ear’s cochlea. The ear is the only place on the body you will see this gel-like membrane. The deciphering and delineation of sound is achieved by a mechanical filtering carried out by this membrane and that may be the most fascinating thing.
Minute in size, the tectorial membrane sits on little hairs inside the cochlea, with small pores that control how water moves back and forth in reaction to vibrations. Researchers observed that different tones reacted differently to the amplification produced by the membrane.
The frequencies at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum seemed to be less affected by the amplification, but the study found strong amplification in the middle tones.
It’s that progress that leads some to believe MIT’s groundbreaking breakthrough could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately enable better single-voice identification.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
For years, the general design concepts of hearing aids have remained rather unchanged. Tweaks and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but the majority of hearing aids are essentially made up of microphones which receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Unfortunately, that’s where one of the design’s drawbacks becomes evident.
All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device including background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, lead to 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 a specific voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune specific frequencies. Only the desired frequencies would be amplified with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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