Researchers at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) might have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most bewildering mysteries, and the revelation 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. According to the study, it might actually be a biochemical filter that enables us to tune in to individual levels of sound.
How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise
While millions of individuals fight hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt to deal with that hearing loss using hearing aids.
Although a hearing aid can give a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, those that use a hearing-improvement device have typically still struggled in settings with copious amounts of background noise. For example, the steady buzz associated with settings like restaurants and parties can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to single out a voice.
Having a conversation with someone in a crowded room can be upsetting and frustrating and individuals who cope with hearing loss know this all too well.
Scientists have been closely studying hearing loss for decades. The way that sound waves travel through the ear and how those waves are differentiated, due to this body of research, 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 accomplished by a mechanical filtering carried out by this membrane and that may be the most intriguing thing.
Minute in size, the tectorial membrane sits on tiny hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that control how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. Researchers noticed that different frequencies of sound reacted differently to the amplification produced by the membrane.
The tones at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum appeared to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study found strong amplification in the middle frequencies.
Some scientists think that more effective hearing aids that can better distinguish individual voices will be the result of this groundbreaking MIT study.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
The fundamental concepts of hearing aid design haven’t changed much over the years. A microphone to detect sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the general components of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained unchanged. This is, unfortunately, where the drawback of this design becomes apparent.
Amplifiers, usually, are not able to discern between different levels of sounds, because of this, the ear gets increased levels of all sounds, that includes 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 distinct 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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