One of hearing loss’s most perplexing mysteries may have been solved by scientists from the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the revelation 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 lets us pick out voices. According to the study, it may actually be a biochemical filter that allows us to tune in to individual levels of sound.
How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise
While millions of individuals fight hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt to overcome that hearing loss using hearing aids.
Although a hearing aid can give a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, people who use a hearing-improvement device have commonly still had trouble in environments with copious amounts 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.
Having a discussion with somebody in a crowded room can be stressful and annoying and people who deal with hearing loss know this all too well.
Scientists have been meticulously investigating hearing loss for decades. 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.
Scientists Discover The Tectorial Membrane
However, it was in 2007 that scientists discovered the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t see this microscopic membrane made 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.
When vibration enters the ear, the tiny tectorial membrane controls how water moves in response using small pores as it rests on little hairs in the cochlea. It was noted that the amplification produced by the membrane caused a different reaction to different tones.
The frequencies at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum seemed to be less affected by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification in the middle tones.
It’s that development that leads some to believe MIT’s groundbreaking discovery could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately enable better single-voice identification.
Hearing Aid Design of The Future
For years, the basic design concepts of hearing aids have remained fairly unchanged. A microphone to pick up sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the general components of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained unchanged. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes clear.
All frequencies are increased with an amplification device including background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT researcher, result in new, innovative hearing aid designs which would offer better speech recognition.
The user of these new hearing aids could, theoretically, tune in to a specific voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune distinct frequencies. Only the desired frequencies would be increased with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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