Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most bewildering mysteries, and the future design of hearing aids could get an overhaul in line with their findings.
Findings from an MIT study debunked the belief that neural processing is what lets us pick out voices. According to the study, it may actually be a biochemical filter that enables us to tune in to specific levels of sound.
How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear
Only a small fraction of the millions of individuals who cope with hearing loss actually use hearing aids to manage it.
Though a significant boost in one’s ability to hear can be the result of using a hearing aid, people that wear a hearing-improvement device have commonly still struggled in settings with copious amounts of background noise. A person’s ability to discriminate voices, for example, can be seriously reduced in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a constant din of background noise.
Having a conversation with someone in a crowded room can be upsetting and annoying and individuals who cope with hearing loss know this all too well.
Scientists have been meticulously studying hearing loss for decades. 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
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t identified by scientists until 2007. 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 intriguing thing.
Minuscule in size, the tectorial membrane sits on delicate hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that control how water moves back and forth in reaction to vibrations. It was observed that the amplification produced by the membrane caused a different reaction to different tones.
The tones at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum appeared to be less affected by the amplification, but the study found strong amplification in the middle tones.
Some scientists think that more effective hearing aids that can better distinguish individual voices will be the result 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. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but the majority of hearing aids are basically made up of microphones that pick up sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Unfortunately, that’s where one of the design’s drawbacks becomes clear.
All frequencies are increased with an amplification device and that includes 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 in to a distinct frequency range, which would allow the wearer to hear isolated sounds like a single voice. With this concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds boosted to aid in reception.
Have Questions About Hearing Loss?
If you’re noticing some level of hearing loss, contact us. Our mission is to provide you with answers to your questions about hearing loss and the benefit of using hearing aids.