One of hearing loss’s most perplexing mysteries might 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.
Findings from an MIT study debunked the belief that neural processing is what allows us to pick 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 cope with hearing loss actually use hearing aids to deal with it.
Though a major boost in one’s ability to hear can be the result of using a hearing aid, people who wear a hearing-improvement device have traditionally still struggled in settings with a lot of background noise. A person’s ability to single out voices, for example, can be drastically limited in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a constant din of background noise.
If you’re someone who is experiencing hearing loss, you very likely know how annoying and stressful it can be to have a personal conversation with someone in a crowded room.
Scientists have been closely investigating hearing loss for decades. Due to 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 inside of the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t see this microscopic membrane composed 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 intriguing thing.
When vibration enters the ear, the tiny tectorial membrane controls how water moves in response using small pores as it rests on little hairs in the cochlea. It was noted that the amplification produced by the membrane caused a different reaction to different frequencies of sound.
The frequencies at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum appeared to be less affected by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification among the middle frequencies.
Some scientists think that more effective hearing aids that can better identify 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 rather unchanged. Tweaks and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but most hearing aids are essentially comprised of microphones which pick up sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Unfortunately, that’s where one of the design’s drawbacks becomes clear.
Amplifiers, usually, are not able to differentiate between different levels of sounds, which means the ear receives boosted levels of all sounds, including background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, result in new, state-of-the-art hearing aid designs which would offer better speech recognition.
Theoretically, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune in to a distinct frequency range, which would permit the wearer to hear isolated sounds like a single voice. Only the chosen frequencies would be amplified with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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