Researchers working to improve hearing aids with new technology and algorithms.

One of hearing loss’s most puzzling mysteries may have been solved by scientists from the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the revelation could lead to the modification of the design of future hearing aids.

Findings from an MIT study debunked the belief that neural processing is what lets us single out voices. Isolating individual levels of sound might actually be managed by a biochemical filter according to this study.

How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise

Only a small portion of the millions of individuals who suffer from hearing loss actually use hearing aids to deal with it.

Though a major boost in one’s ability to hear can be the outcome of wearing a hearing aid, settings with lots of background noise have traditionally been a problem for individuals who use a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to single out voices, for instance, can be drastically 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 deal with hearing loss know this all too well.

For decades scientists have been studying hearing loss. As a result of 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 discovered the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t see this microscopic membrane made of a gel-like substance in any other parts of the body. The deciphering and delineation of sound is accomplished by a mechanical filtering carried out by this membrane and that may be the most fascinating thing.

Minuscule in size, the tectorial membrane sits on little hairs inside the cochlea, with small pores that manage how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. It was observed 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 frequencies.

Some scientists believe 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 basic concepts of hearing aid design haven’t changed very much over the years. 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, regrettably, where the shortcoming of this design becomes apparent.

All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device and that includes background noise. Another MIT scientist has long thought tectorial membrane exploration could lead to new hearing aid designs that provide better speech recognition for users.

Theoretically, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a distinct frequency range, which would enable the wearer to hear isolated sounds such as a single voice. Only the desired frequencies would be increased with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.

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