Researchers working to improve hearing aids with new technology and algorithms.

Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most mystifying mysteries, and the future design of hearing aids might get an overhaul in line with their findings.

The enduring idea that voices are isolated by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. Isolating 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

While millions of individuals fight hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt to overcome that hearing loss using hearing aids.

Though a major boost in one’s ability to hear can be the result of using a hearing aid, settings with lots of background noise have traditionally been a problem for individuals who wear a hearing improvement device. For example, the steady buzz associated with settings like restaurants and parties can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to single out a voice.

If you’re someone who is experiencing hearing loss, you very likely recognize how annoying and stressful it can be to have a personal conversation with somebody 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 differentiated, due to this body of research, was believed to be well understood.

The Tectorial Membrane is Discovered

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 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.

Minute in size, the tectorial membrane rests on little hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that manage how water moves back and forth in reaction to vibrations. Researchers noticed that different tones reacted differently to the amplification made by the membrane.

The tones at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum appeared to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study found strong amplification among the middle tones.

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

The fundamental principles of hearing aid design haven’t changed much over the years. A microphone to pick up sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the general components of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained the same. Unfortunately, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes apparent.

Amplifiers, typically, are unable to differentiate between different levels of sounds, which means the ear gets increased levels of all sounds, that includes background noise. Another MIT scientist has long thought tectorial membrane research could lead to new hearing aid designs that provide better speech recognition for wearers.

Theoretically, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a distinct frequency range, which would permit the user to hear isolated sounds such as a single voice. With this concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds boosted to aid in reception.

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