Researchers at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most mystifying mysteries, and the insight could lead to the overhauling of the design of future hearing aids.
The long standing idea that voices are singled out by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. Isolating individual levels of sound may actually be handled by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise
Only a small fraction of the millions of individuals who cope with hearing loss actually use hearing aids to manage it.
Though a significant boost in one’s ability to hear can be the outcome of using a hearing aid, those that use a hearing-improvement device have typically still had trouble in environments with a lot of background noise. For example, the constant buzz associated with settings like parties and restaurants can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to single out a voice.
If you’re a person who is afflicted with hearing loss, you very likely understand how annoying and upsetting it can be to have a personal conversation with someone in a crowded room.
Scientists have been closely investigating hearing loss for decades. As a result of 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 Discovered
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t discovered by scientists until 2007. The ear is the only place on the body you will see this gel-like membrane. The deciphering and delineation of sound is accomplished by a mechanical filtering carried out by this membrane and that might be the most fascinating thing.
When vibration comes into the ear, the minute tectorial membrane controls how water moves in response using small pores as it sits on little hairs in the cochlea. Researchers noticed that different tones reacted differently to the amplification made by the membrane.
The middle frequencies were found to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the spectrum were less affected.
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
For years, the general design concepts of hearing aids have remained fairly unchanged. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some enhancements, but most hearing aids are basically comprised of microphones which receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Unfortunately, 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, that includes background noise. Another MIT researcher has long believed tectorial membrane exploration could result in new hearing aid designs that provide better speech recognition for wearers.
In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a distinct frequency range, which would enable the user to hear isolated sounds such as a single voice. With this concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds increased to aid in reception.
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