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 might get an overhaul in line with their findings.
Results from an MIT study debunked the idea that neural processing is what allows us to single 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 portion of the millions of individuals who suffer from hearing loss actually use hearing aids to deal with it.
Though a hearing aid can give a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, people who use a hearing-improvement device have typically still struggled in settings with copious amounts of background noise. A person’s ability to discriminate voices, for instance, can be drastically limited in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a continuous din of background noise.
Having a discussion with somebody in a crowded room can be stressful and annoying and people who cope with hearing loss know this all too well.
For decades scientists have been investigating hearing loss. The way that sound waves move through the ear and how those waves are distinguished, due to this body of research, 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. The ear is the only place on the body you will find this gel-like membrane. The deciphering and delineation of sound is accomplished by a mechanical filtering carried out by this membrane and that may 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 rests on little hairs in the cochlea. Researchers noted that different tones reacted differently to the amplification produced by the membrane.
The frequencies at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum appeared to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study found strong amplification among the middle tones.
Some scientists believe 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 general design principles of hearing aids have remained fairly 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 unchanged. This is, unfortunately, where the drawback of this design becomes apparent.
Amplifiers, usually, are unable to differentiate between different levels of sounds, because of this, the ear gets boosted levels of all sounds, including background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, lead to new, innovative hearing aid designs which would provide 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 chosen frequencies would be increased with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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