One of hearing loss’s most puzzling mysteries may have been solved by scientists from the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the future design of hearing aids could get an overhaul based on their findings.
Results from an MIT study debunked the belief that neural processing is what allows us to pick out voices. Tuning into specific sound levels may actually be managed by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Background Noise Effects Our Ability to Hear
Only a small fraction of the millions of individuals who cope with hearing loss actually use hearing aids to manage it.
Though a hearing aid can provide a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, those that use a hearing-improvement device have commonly still struggled in environments with a lot of background noise. A person’s ability to discriminate voices, for example, can be drastically reduced in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a steady din of background noise.
If you’re someone who is experiencing 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.
Scientists have been meticulously 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.
The Tectorial Membrane is Discovered
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t identified by scientists until 2007. The ear is the only place on the body you will see this gel-like membrane. What really fascinated scientists was how the membrane provides mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
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 created by the membrane caused a different reaction to different tones.
The middle tones were shown to have strong amplification and the frequencies at the lower and higher ends of the scale were less affected.
Some scientists believe that more effective hearing aids that can better identify individual voices will be the outcome of this groundbreaking MIT study.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
For years, the general design principles of hearing aids have remained relatively unchanged. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some enhancements, but most hearing aids are generally made up of microphones that pick up sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes apparent.
All frequencies are increased with an amplification device including 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 a specific voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune specific frequencies. Only the desired frequencies would be boosted with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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