One of hearing loss’s most puzzling mysteries might have been solved by scientists from the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the insight could result in the overhauling of the design of future hearing aids.
The enduring notion that voices are singled out by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. According to the study, it may actually be a biochemical filter that allows us to tune in to individual levels of sound.
How Background Noise Effects Our Ability to Hear
While millions of individuals battle hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt to combat that hearing loss using hearing aids.
Though a hearing aid can provide a tremendous boost to one’s ability to hear, environments with a lot of background noise have typically been a problem for individuals who use a hearing improvement device. For example, the constant buzz surrounding settings like parties and restaurants can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to discriminate a voice.
If you’re someone who suffers from hearing loss, you most likely recognize how frustrating 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. The way that sound waves travel through the ear and how those waves are distinguished, due to this body of research, 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 intrigued scientists was how the membrane provides mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
When vibration enters the ear, the tiny tectorial membrane manages how water moves in reaction using small pores as it rests on little hairs in the cochlea. Researchers noticed that different frequencies of sound reacted differently to the amplification made by the membrane.
The middle tones were found to have strong amplification and the frequencies at the lower and higher ends of the scale were less affected.
It’s that progress that leads some to believe MIT’s groundbreaking discovery could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately allow for better single-voice identification.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
For years, the basic design principles of hearing aids have remained rather unchanged. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but most hearing aids are basically comprised of microphones that receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. This is, unfortunately, where the shortcoming of this design becomes apparent.
All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device including background noise. Another MIT scientist has long believed tectorial membrane research could result in new hearing aid designs that offer better speech recognition for users.
Theoretically, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune in to a specific frequency range, which would allow the wearer to hear isolated sounds like a single voice. Only the desired frequencies would be boosted with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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