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 may get an overhaul based on their findings.

Findings from an MIT study debunked the idea that neural processing is what allows us to pick out voices. Tuning into individual levels of sound might actually be managed by a biochemical filter according to this study.

How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise

While millions of individuals fight hearing loss, only a fraction of them try to overcome that hearing loss with the use of hearing aids.

Although a hearing aid can give a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, people who wear a hearing-improvement device have traditionally still had trouble in settings with a lot of background noise. A person’s ability to discriminate voices, for instance, can be seriously reduced in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a steady din of background noise.

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

Scientists have been meticulously studying hearing loss for decades. The way that sound waves travel through the ear and how those waves are differentiated, due to this body of research, was thought to be well understood.

The Tectorial Membrane is Identified

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 material in any other parts of the body. What really intrigued scientists was how the membrane provides mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.

When vibration comes into the ear, the minute tectorial membrane manages 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 frequencies of sound.

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

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

The Future of Hearing Aid Design

The fundamental concepts of hearing aid design haven’t changed very much over the years. Tweaks and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but the majority of hearing aids are basically comprised of microphones which 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, state-of-the-art hearing aid designs which would offer better speech recognition.

Theoretically, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune in to a distinct frequency range, which would permit the wearer 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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