Researchers at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) might have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most bewildering mysteries, and the future design of hearing aids may get an overhaul in line with their findings.
The enduring belief that voices are singled out by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. According to the study, it might actually be a biochemical filter that allows us to tune in to individual sound levels.
How Our Ability to Hear is Affected 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 give a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, people who use a hearing-improvement device have traditionally still struggled in environments with a lot of background noise. For example, the constant buzz associated with settings like parties and restaurants can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to single out a voice.
Having a discussion with someone in a crowded room can be stressful and annoying and individuals who suffer from hearing loss know this all too well.
Scientists have been closely studying hearing loss for decades. 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 Identify The Tectorial Membrane
However, it was in 2007 that scientists discovered the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t find this microscopic membrane composed of a gel-like material in any other parts of the body. The deciphering and delineation of sound is achieved by a mechanical filtering performed by this membrane and that may be the most intriguing thing.
When vibration comes into the ear, the tiny tectorial membrane manages how water moves in response using small pores as it sits on little hairs in the cochlea. It was observed that the amplification produced by the membrane caused a different reaction to different tones.
The tones at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum appeared to be less affected by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification in the middle frequencies.
Some scientists believe that more effective hearing aids that can better distinguish individual voices will be the outcome of this groundbreaking MIT study.
Hearing Aid Design of The Future
For years, the basic design principles of hearing aids have remained relatively unchanged. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but most hearing aids are generally comprised of microphones that receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Unfortunately, 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, innovative hearing aid designs which would provide better speech recognition.
In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune in to a specific frequency range, which would allow the user to hear isolated sounds such as a single voice. With this concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds increased to aid in reception.
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