One of hearing loss’s most perplexing mysteries may have been solved by scientists from the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the insight could lead to the modification of the design of future hearing aids.
The enduring notion that voices are singled out by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. Tuning into individual levels of sound might actually be handled by a biochemical filter according to this study.
How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise
While millions of people battle hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt to overcome that hearing loss with the use of hearing aids.
Although a hearing aid can provide a tremendous boost to one’s ability to hear, settings with a lot of background noise have typically been a problem for people who wear a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to discriminate voices, for example, can be seriously reduced in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a constant din of background noise.
Having a discussion with someone in a crowded room can be stressful and annoying and individuals who deal with hearing loss know this all too well.
For decades scientists have been investigating hearing loss. The way that sound waves travel through the ear and how those waves are distinguished, due to this body of research, was believed to be well understood.
The Tectorial Membrane is Identified
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 achieved by a mechanical filtering performed by this membrane and that might be the most intriguing thing.
When vibration enters the ear, the minute tectorial membrane manages how water moves in reaction using small pores as it sits on little hairs in the cochlea. Researchers observed 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 impacted.
It’s that progress that leads some scientists 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 basic design concepts of hearing aids have remained rather unchanged. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some enhancements, but the majority of hearing aids are generally comprised of microphones which pick up sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. This is, unfortunately, where the drawback of this design becomes apparent.
Amplifiers, normally, are not able to discern between different frequencies of sounds, which means the ear gets increased levels of all sounds, including background noise. Another MIT scientist has long believed tectorial membrane exploration could lead to new hearing aid designs that provide better speech recognition for wearers.
In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune in to a distinct frequency range, which would permit the wearer to hear isolated sounds like a single voice. Only the desired frequencies would be amplified with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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