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 bewildering mysteries, and the insight could result in the overhauling of the design of future hearing aids.

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

How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise

Only a small fraction of the millions of individuals who cope with hearing loss actually use hearing aids to deal with it.

Even though a hearing aid can provide a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, those that wear a hearing-improvement device have traditionally still had trouble 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 conversation with someone in a crowded room can be stressful and frustrating and individuals who cope with hearing loss know this all too well.

For decades scientists have been investigating hearing loss. 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.

Scientists Discover The Tectorial Membrane

However, it was in 2007 that scientists identified the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t find this microscopic membrane composed of a gel-like substance 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 tiny tectorial membrane manages how water moves in reaction using small pores as it rests on little hairs in the cochlea. Researchers observed that different frequencies of sound reacted differently to the amplification made by the membrane.

The tones at the highest and lowest range seemed to be less affected by the amplification, but the study found strong amplification among the middle frequencies.

It’s that development that leads some to believe MIT’s groundbreaking discovery 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 principles of hearing aids have remained rather 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 the same. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s drawbacks becomes evident.

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

The user of these new hearing aids could, theoretically, tune in to a specific voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune distinct frequencies. Only the chosen frequencies would be boosted with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.

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