One of hearing loss’s most perplexing mysteries may have been solved by scientists from the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the future design of hearing aids might get an overhaul in line with their findings.
Results from an MIT study debunked the notion 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 Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise
Only a small portion of the millions of individuals who cope with hearing loss actually use hearing aids to deal with it.
Though a hearing aid can provide a tremendous boost to one’s ability to hear, those that use a hearing-improvement device have commonly still had trouble in environments with copious amounts of background noise. For example, the constant buzz associated with settings like restaurants and parties can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to discriminate a voice.
If you’re a person who suffers from hearing loss, you very likely recognize how annoying and upsetting it can be to have a one-on-one conversation with somebody in a crowded room.
For decades scientists have been studying hearing loss. The way that sound waves move through the ear and how those waves are differentiated, due to this body of research, was believed to be well understood.
The Tectorial Membrane is Identified
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 see this gel-like membrane. What really intrigued scientists was how the membrane provides mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
Minute in size, the tectorial membrane sits on delicate hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that control how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. Researchers observed that different tones reacted differently to the amplification made 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 in the middle frequencies.
It’s that progress that leads some to believe MIT’s groundbreaking discovery could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately allow for better single-voice recognition.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
The fundamental principles of hearing aid design haven’t changed much over the years. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but most hearing aids are generally comprised of microphones which receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s drawbacks becomes apparent.
All frequencies are increased with an amplification device and that includes background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, lead to new, state-of-the-art hearing aid designs which would offer better speech recognition.
The user of these new hearing aids could, theoretically, tune in to an individual 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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