Researchers working to improve hearing aids with new technology and algorithms.

Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) might have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most mystifying mysteries, and the future design of hearing aids might get an overhaul in line with their findings.

Results from an MIT study debunked the idea that neural processing is what lets us pick out voices. Tuning into specific sound levels may actually be handled by a biochemical filter according to this study.

How Background Noise Effects Our Ability to Hear

While millions of individuals fight hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt to overcome that hearing loss using hearing aids.

Even though a hearing aid can provide a tremendous boost to one’s ability to hear, settings with lots of background noise have traditionally been a problem for individuals who wear a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to single out voices, for instance, can be severely limited in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a steady din of background noise.

Having a conversation with somebody in a crowded room can be stressful and frustrating and people who deal with hearing loss know this all too well.

Scientists have been closely investigating 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 believed to be well understood.

Scientists Identify 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 substance in any other parts of the body. The deciphering and delineation of sound is accomplished by a mechanical filtering performed by this membrane and that might be the most intriguing thing.

Minuscule in size, the tectorial membrane sits on delicate hairs inside the cochlea, with small pores that control how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. Researchers observed that different tones reacted differently to the amplification produced by the membrane.

The frequencies at the highest and lowest range seemed to be less affected by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification among the middle tones.

Some scientists believe that more effective hearing aids that can better distinguish individual voices will be the outcome of this groundbreaking MIT study.

Hearing Aid Design of The Future

For years, the basic design principles of hearing aids have remained relatively unchanged. Tweaks and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but the majority of hearing aids are generally comprised of microphones that receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Unfortunately, that’s where one of the design’s drawbacks becomes apparent.

Amplifiers, normally, are not able to differentiate between different levels of sounds, because of this, the ear gets boosted levels of all sounds, that includes background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, result in new, state-of-the-art 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 chosen frequencies would be amplified with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.

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