Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) might have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most mystifying mysteries, 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 single out voices. Isolating specific levels of sound might actually be managed by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear
While millions of people fight hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt 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 using a hearing aid, people that use a hearing-improvement device have commonly still had trouble in settings with a lot of background noise. A person’s ability to single out voices, for example, can be seriously limited in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a steady din of background noise.
Having a conversation with somebody in a crowded room can be upsetting and annoying and individuals who deal with hearing loss know this all too well.
For decades scientists have been studying hearing loss. Due to 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.
The Tectorial Membrane is Discovered
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 see this gel-like membrane. The deciphering and delineation of sound is achieved by a mechanical filtering performed by this membrane and that might be the most intriguing thing.
Minute in size, the tectorial membrane rests on little hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that manage how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. Researchers noted that different frequencies of sound reacted differently to the amplification produced 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.
It’s that development that leads some to believe MIT’s groundbreaking breakthrough could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately enable better single-voice identification.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
For years, the general design concepts of hearing aids have remained relatively unchanged. 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 the same. This is, unfortunately, where the drawback of this design becomes obvious.
All frequencies are increased with an amplification device and that includes background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, lead to new, innovative hearing aid designs which would provide better speech recognition.
The user of these new hearing aids could, in theory, tune in to an individual voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune distinct frequencies. Only the chosen frequencies would be boosted with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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