Researchers at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) might have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most bewildering mysteries, and the insight could lead to the overhauling 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. According to the study, it might actually be a biochemical filter that enables us to tune in to individual sound levels.
How Our Ability to Hear is Affected 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 provide a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, people that wear a hearing-improvement device have traditionally still struggled in environments with copious amounts of background noise. For example, the constant buzz surrounding settings like parties and restaurants can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to single out a voice.
Having a discussion with someone in a crowded room can be upsetting and frustrating and individuals who deal with hearing loss know this all too well.
Scientists have been meticulously investigating hearing loss for decades. The way that sound waves move through the ear and how those waves are differentiated, due to this body of research, was thought to be well understood.
Scientists Discover The Tectorial Membrane
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t identified by scientists until 2007. You won’t find this microscopic membrane composed of a gel-like material in any other parts of the body. The deciphering and delineation of sound is achieved by a mechanical filtering performed by this membrane and that may be the most fascinating thing.
Minute in size, the tectorial membrane rests on delicate hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that control how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. Researchers observed that different frequencies of sound reacted differently to the amplification produced by the membrane.
The middle tones were found to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the spectrum were less affected.
Some scientists believe that more effective hearing aids that can better identify individual voices will be the outcome of this groundbreaking MIT study.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
The fundamental principles of hearing aid design haven’t changed very much over the years. Tweaks and fine-tuning have helped with some enhancements, but the majority of hearing aids are essentially comprised of microphones that receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes evident.
Amplifiers, typically, are unable to discern between different frequencies of sounds, which means the ear gets increased levels of all sounds, that includes background noise. Another MIT scientist has long believed tectorial membrane research could result in new hearing aid designs that offer better speech recognition for users.
In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune in to a specific frequency range, which would permit the wearer to hear isolated sounds such as a single voice. With this concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds boosted to aid in reception.
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