One of hearing loss’s most perplexing mysteries may have been solved by scientists from the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the future design of hearing aids may get an overhaul in line with their findings.
Findings from an MIT study debunked the belief that neural processing is what lets us single out voices. Tuning into individual sound levels may actually be managed by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise
Only a small fraction of the millions of people 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, those that wear a hearing-improvement device have typically still had trouble in environments with a lot 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 someone who is afflicted with hearing loss, you very likely recognize how frustrating and upsetting it can be to have a one-on-one conversation with somebody in a crowded room.
Scientists have been meticulously investigating hearing loss for decades. Due to those efforts, the way that sound waves travel throughout the inner ear, and how the ear distinguishes different frequencies of sounds, was thought to be well-understood.
The Tectorial Membrane is Identified
However, it was in 2007 that scientists discovered the tectorial membrane inside of the inner ear’s cochlea. The ear is the only place on the body you will see this gel-like membrane. What really fascinated scientists was how the membrane supplies mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
When vibration comes into the ear, the tiny tectorial membrane controls how water moves in response using small pores as it sits on little hairs in the cochlea. Researchers noted 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 affected by the amplification, but the study found strong amplification in the middle frequencies.
Some scientists think that more effective hearing aids that can better distinguish individual voices will be the result of this groundbreaking MIT study.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
For years, the general design principles of hearing aids have remained fairly unchanged. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some enhancements, but the majority of hearing aids are essentially comprised of microphones that receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. This is, unfortunately, where the shortcoming of this design becomes obvious.
Amplifiers, normally, are unable to discern between different frequencies of sounds, because of this, the ear receives boosted levels of all sounds, including background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT researcher, lead to new, innovative hearing aid designs which would provide better speech recognition.
The user of these new hearing aids could, in theory, tune in to an individual voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune distinct frequencies. Only the desired frequencies would be increased with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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