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 may get an overhaul in line with their findings.

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

How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise

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

Though a significant boost in one’s ability to hear can be the outcome of wearing a hearing aid, environments with a lot of background noise have typically been an issue for individuals who use a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to discriminate voices, for example, can be severely limited in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a constant din of background noise.

If you’re someone who is afflicted with hearing loss, you most likely know how frustrating and stressful it can be to have a one-on-one conversation with somebody in a crowded room.

For decades scientists have been studying hearing loss. The way that sound waves move through the ear and how those waves are distinguished, due to this body of research, was thought to be well understood.

Scientists Discover The Tectorial Membrane

But the tectorial membrane wasn’t discovered by scientists until 2007. 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.

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

The middle frequencies were shown to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the spectrum were less affected.

Some scientists think 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

The basic concepts of hearing aid design haven’t changed very much over the years. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but the majority of hearing aids are generally comprised of microphones that receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes evident.

Amplifiers, normally, are unable to discern between different levels of sounds, because of this, the ear receives increased levels of all sounds, including background noise. Another MIT researcher has long thought tectorial membrane research 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 a specific voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune specific frequencies. Only the chosen frequencies would be increased with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.

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