Contemporary hearing aids have come a long way; current models are highly effective and contain remarkable digital features, like wireless connectivity, that strongly enhance a person’s ability to hear along with their overall quality of life.
But there is still room for improvement.
Particularly, in specific instances hearing aids have some trouble with two things:
- Locating the source of sound
- Cutting out background noise
But that may soon change, as the most current research in hearing aid design is being guided from a surprising source: the world of insects.
Why insects hold the answer to improved hearing aids
Both mammals and insects have the same problem regarding hearing: the transformation and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What researchers are finding is that the method insects use to solve this problem is in ways more powerful than our own.
The internal organs of hearing in an insect are smaller and more sensitive to a broader range of frequencies, allowing the insect to detect sounds humans are unable to hear. Insects also can recognize the directionality and distance of sound in ways more accurate than the human ear.
Hearing aid design has traditionally been directed by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have had a tendency to offer simple amplification of inbound sound and transmission to the middle ear. But scientists are now asking a different question.
Borrowing inspiration from the natural world, they’re questioning how nature—and its hundreds of millions of years of evolution—has attempted to solve the problem of sensing and perceiving sound. By assessing the hearing mechanism of several insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, investigators can borrow the best from each to establish a completely new mechanism that can be applied in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.
Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones
Researchers from University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and the MRC/CSO Institute for Hearing Research (IHR) at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, will be evaluating hearing aids equipped with a unique kind of miniature microphone inspired by insects.
The hope is that the new hearing aids will achieve three things:
- More energy-efficient microphones and electronics that will eventually result in smaller hearing aids, reduced power usage, and extended battery life.
- The capability to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
- The ability to focus on specific sounds while eliminating background noise.
Researchers will also be testing 3D printing procedures to improve the design and ergonomics of the new hearing aids.
The future of hearing aids
For most of their history, hearing aids have been produced with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an effort to recreate the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are building a new set of goals. Rather than trying to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can ENHANCE it.