Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) might have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most mystifying mysteries, and the revelation could lead to the overhauling of the design of future hearing aids.
The enduring notion that voices are isolated by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. Isolating individual sound levels may actually be handled by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear
While millions of individuals battle hearing loss, only a fraction of them try to overcome that hearing loss using hearing aids.
Although a hearing aid can give a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, people that use a hearing-improvement device have commonly still struggled in environments with copious amounts of background noise. A person’s ability to discriminate voices, for instance, can be drastically reduced in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a constant din of background noise.
Having a conversation with someone in a crowded room can be stressful and annoying and individuals who deal with hearing loss know this all too well.
For decades scientists have been studying hearing loss. As a result of those efforts, the way that sound waves travel throughout the inner ear, and how the ear distinguishes different frequencies of sounds, was thought to be well-understood.
Scientists Discover The Tectorial Membrane
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t identified 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 intrigued 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 within the cochlea, with small pores that manage how water moves back and forth in reaction to vibrations. It was noted that the amplification produced by the membrane caused a different reaction to different tones.
The middle tones were shown to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the spectrum were less affected.
It’s that progress that leads some to believe MIT’s groundbreaking breakthrough could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately enable better single-voice recognition.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
The fundamental principles of hearing aid design haven’t changed very much over the years. A microphone to pick up sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the general elements of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained unchanged. This is, regrettably, where the shortcoming of this design becomes obvious.
Amplifiers, usually, are not able to discern between different levels of sounds, because of this, the ear gets increased levels of all sounds, that includes background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, result in new, state-of-the-art hearing aid designs which would provide better speech recognition.
Theoretically, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a specific frequency range, which would enable the user to hear isolated sounds such as 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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