Contemporary hearing aids have come a long way; present models are remarkably effective and come with remarkable digital functions, such as wifi connectivity, that substantially improve a person’s ability to hear along with their all-around quality of life.

But there is still room for improvement.

Particularly, in a few scenarios hearing aids have some challenges with two things:

  1. Locating the source of sound
  2. Eliminating background noise

But that may soon change, as the newest research in hearing aid design is being guided from a surprising source: the world of insects.

Why insects hold the secret to improved hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the equivalent problem in regard to hearing: the transformation and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What researchers are identifying is that the system insects use to solve this problem is in ways more proficient than our own.

The internal organs of hearing in an insect are smaller and more sensitive to a much wider range of frequencies, enabling the insect to recognize sounds humans are unable to hear. Insects also can perceive the directionality and distance of sound in ways more accurate than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has traditionally been directed by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have had a tendency to supply straightforward amplification of inbound sound and transmission to the middle ear. But scientists are now asking a completely different question.

Finding inspiration from the natural world, they’re asking how nature—and its hundreds of millions of years of evolution—has attempted to solve the problem of sensing and perceiving sound. By studying the hearing mechanism of a variety of insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, researchers can borrow the best from each to make a completely new mechanism that can be utilized in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.

Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones

Experts from University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and the MRC/CSO Institute for Hearing Research (IHR) at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, will be assessing hearing aids outfitted with a new type of miniature microphone inspired by insects.

The hope is that the new hearing aids will achieve three things:

  1. More energy-efficient microphones and electronics that will ultimately lead to smaller hearing aids, lower power usage, and extended battery life.
  2. The ability to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while wiping out background noise.

Researchers will also be experimenting with 3D printing techniques to improve the design and ergonomics of the new hearing aids.

The future of hearing aids

For virtually all of their history, hearing aids have been constructed with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an attempt to duplicate the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are building a new set of goals. Rather than attempting to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can IMPROVE it.

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