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 in line with their findings.
The long standing belief that voices are isolated by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. Isolating specific sound levels may actually be handled by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise
Only a small fraction of the millions of individuals who suffer from hearing loss actually use hearing aids to manage it.
Though a hearing aid can provide a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, people who use a hearing-improvement device have typically still struggled in settings 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 discriminate a voice.
Having a discussion with somebody in a crowded room can be upsetting and annoying and individuals who suffer from hearing loss know this all too well.
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.
The Tectorial Membrane is Discovered
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t discovered by scientists until 2007. You won’t see this microscopic membrane composed of a gel-like substance in any other parts of the body. What really fascinated scientists was how the membrane provides mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
Minuscule in size, the tectorial membrane sits on tiny hairs inside the cochlea, with small pores that manage how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. Researchers observed that different tones reacted differently to the amplification produced by the membrane.
The middle frequencies were found to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the spectrum were less affected.
It’s that development that leads some scientists to believe MIT’s groundbreaking breakthrough could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately allow for better single-voice recognition.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
The basic concepts of hearing aid design haven’t changed much over the years. Adjustments 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. This is, regrettably, where the shortcoming of this design becomes obvious.
All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device including background noise. Another MIT researcher has long believed tectorial membrane research could lead to new hearing aid designs that provide better speech recognition for users.
Theoretically, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a distinct frequency range, which would enable the wearer to hear isolated sounds such as 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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