One of hearing loss’s most perplexing mysteries might have been solved by scientists from the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the insight could lead to the overhauling of the design of future hearing aids.
Results 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 enables us to tune in to individual levels of sound.
How Background Noise Effects Our Ability to Hear
Only a small fraction of the millions of people who suffer from hearing loss actually use hearing aids to deal with it.
Even though a hearing aid can give a tremendous boost to one’s ability to hear, 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 instance, can be drastically reduced in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a constant din of background noise.
If you’re someone who suffers from hearing loss, you most likely know how frustrating and stressful it can be to have a personal conversation with somebody in a crowded room.
Scientists have been closely studying hearing loss for decades. 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.
The Tectorial Membrane is Identified
However, it was in 2007 that scientists identified the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t see this microscopic membrane composed of a gel-like material 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.
Minute in size, the tectorial membrane rests on tiny hairs inside the cochlea, with small pores that manage how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. It was observed that the amplification produced by the membrane caused a different reaction to different frequencies of sound.
The middle tones were shown to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the spectrum were less impacted.
It’s that progress that leads some scientists to believe MIT’s groundbreaking discovery could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately allow for better single-voice recognition.
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 enhancements, but the majority of hearing aids are basically comprised of microphones that receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. This is, regrettably, where the shortcoming of this design becomes apparent.
All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device including background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, lead to new, innovative hearing aid designs which would offer better speech recognition.
Theoretically, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a specific frequency range, which would allow the wearer to hear isolated sounds like a single voice. Only the chosen frequencies would be amplified with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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