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

One of hearing loss’s most perplexing mysteries may have been solved by scientists from the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the insight could lead to the modification of the design of future hearing aids.

Findings from an MIT study debunked the belief that neural processing is what allows us to pick out voices. According to the study, it might actually be a biochemical filter that enables us to tune in to specific sound levels.

How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise

While millions of individuals battle hearing loss, only a fraction of them try to combat that hearing loss with the use of hearing aids.

Even though a hearing aid can provide a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, environments with lots of background noise have traditionally been an issue for people who wear a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to single out voices, for example, can be drastically limited in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a constant din of background noise.

Having a discussion with someone in a crowded room can be stressful and frustrating and people who deal with hearing loss know this all too well.

Scientists have been meticulously 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 Identified

However, it was in 2007 that scientists identified the tectorial membrane inside of the inner ear’s cochlea. The ear is the only place on the body you will find 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 minute tectorial membrane controls how water moves in reaction using small pores as it rests on little hairs in the cochlea. It was observed that the amplification created by the membrane caused a different reaction to different frequencies of sound.

The middle tones were found to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the spectrum were less impacted.

Some scientists believe that more effective hearing aids that can better distinguish individual voices will be the result of this groundbreaking MIT study.

Hearing Aid Design of The Future

For years, the general design principles of hearing aids have remained rather unchanged. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but most hearing aids are essentially comprised of microphones that pick up sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes apparent.

Amplifiers, usually, are not able to differentiate between different frequencies of sounds, which means the ear gets increased levels of all sounds, that includes background noise. Another MIT researcher has long thought tectorial membrane exploration could lead to new hearing aid designs that provide better speech recognition for wearers.

The user of these new hearing aids could, theoretically, tune in to an individual voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune specific frequencies. With this concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds increased to aid in reception.

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