One of hearing loss’s most perplexing mysteries might have been solved by scientists from the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the insight could lead to the modification of the design of future hearing aids.
The long standing belief 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 Background Noise Effects Our Ability to Hear
Only a small fraction of the millions of people who suffer from hearing loss actually use hearing aids to deal with it.
Although a hearing aid can provide a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, environments with lots of background noise have typically been a problem for people who use a hearing improvement device. A person’s ability to single out voices, for example, can be severely reduced in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a steady din of background noise.
Having a conversation with someone in a crowded room can be stressful and annoying and individuals who suffer from hearing loss know this all too well.
Scientists have been meticulously studying hearing loss for decades. As a result of those efforts, the way that sound waves travel throughout the inner ear, and how the ear distinguishes different frequencies of sounds, was thought to be well-understood.
Scientists Identify The Tectorial Membrane
However, it was in 2007 that scientists identified the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t see this microscopic membrane composed of a gel-like material in any other parts of the body. What really intrigued scientists was how the membrane provides mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
Minute in size, the tectorial membrane rests on tiny hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that control how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. It was observed that the amplification created by the membrane caused a different reaction to different frequencies of sound.
The frequencies at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum seemed to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification in the middle tones.
Some scientists believe 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
For years, the basic design concepts of hearing aids have remained rather unchanged. A microphone to detect sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the basic elements of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained unchanged. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes evident.
Amplifiers, usually, are unable to differentiate between different levels of sounds, because of this, the ear receives boosted levels of all sounds, including background noise. Another MIT researcher has long believed tectorial membrane exploration could lead to new hearing aid designs that provide better speech recognition for wearers.
The user of these new hearing aids could, in theory, tune in to an individual voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune distinct frequencies. With this design, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds amplified to aid in reception.
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