Modern hearing aids have come a long way; current models are highly effective and feature powerful digital functions, like wireless connectivity, that strongly improve a person’s ability to hear along with their all-around quality of life.

But there is still room for improvement.

Particularly, in specific instances hearing aids have some trouble with two things:

  1. Locating the source of sound
  2. Cutting out background noise

But that may soon change, as the newest research in hearing aid design is being guided from a unusual source: the world of insects.

Why insects hold the answer to better hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the same problem related to hearing: the conversion and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What researchers are discovering is that the method insects use to solve this problem is in many ways more effective than our own.

The organs of hearing in an insect are more compact and more sensitive to a much wider range of frequencies, enabling the insect to sense sounds humans cannot hear. Insects also can sense the directionality and distance of sound in ways more precise than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has commonly been guided by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have tended to provide simple amplification of incoming sound and transmission to the middle ear. But researchers are now asking a different question.

Finding inspiration from the natural world, they’re inquiring how nature—and its hundreds of millions of years of evolution—has attempted to solve the problem of sensing and perceiving sound. By analyzing the hearing mechanism of different insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, investigators can borrow the best from each to design a completely new mechanism that can be used in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.

Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones

Researchers from University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and the MRC/CSO Institute for Hearing Research (IHR) at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, will be assessing hearing aids equipped with a new type of miniature microphone inspired by insects.

The hope is that the new hearing aids will accomplish three things:

  1. More energy-efficient microphones and electronics that will ultimately result in smaller hearing aids, reduced power usage, and extended battery life.
  2. The ability to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while reducing background noise.

Researchers will also be experimenting with 3D printing techniques to improve the design and ergonomics of the new hearing aids.

The future of hearing aids

For virtually all of their history, hearing aids have been constructed with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an attempt to duplicate the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are creating a new set of goals. Rather than trying to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can IMPROVE it.

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