One of hearing loss’s most puzzling mysteries might have been solved by scientists from the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the revelation could lead to the overhauling of the design of future hearing aids.
Results from an MIT study debunked the belief that neural processing is what allows us to pick out voices. According to the study, it may actually be a biochemical filter that enables us to tune in to individual levels of sound.
How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise
While millions of people battle hearing loss, only a fraction of them try to overcome that hearing loss using hearing aids.
Even though a hearing aid can provide a tremendous boost to one’s ability to hear, environments with a lot of background noise have traditionally been a problem for people who use a hearing improvement device. For example, the continuous buzz associated with settings like parties and restaurants can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to single out a voice.
If you’re a person who is afflicted with hearing loss, you very likely understand how annoying and stressful it can be to have a personal conversation with somebody in a crowded room.
For decades scientists have been investigating hearing loss. 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.
The Tectorial Membrane is Discovered
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t discovered by scientists until 2007. You won’t find this microscopic membrane made of a gel-like material in any other parts of the body. What really intrigued scientists was how the membrane supplies mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.
Minuscule in size, the tectorial membrane rests on little hairs within the cochlea, with small pores that manage how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. It was observed that the amplification produced by the membrane caused a different reaction to different tones.
The middle frequencies were found to have strong amplification and the frequencies at the lower and higher ends of the spectrum were less impacted.
It’s that progress that leads some scientists to believe MIT’s groundbreaking discovery could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately allow for better single-voice identification.
Hearing Aid Design of The Future
For years, the basic design concepts of hearing aids have remained relatively unchanged. A microphone to pick up 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 drawbacks becomes apparent.
Amplifiers, typically, are not able to discern between different frequencies of sounds, because of this, the ear gets increased levels of all sounds, that includes background noise. Another MIT researcher has long believed tectorial membrane exploration could lead to new hearing aid designs that offer better speech recognition for wearers.
The user of these new hearing aids could, in theory, tune in to a specific voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune distinct frequencies. Only the desired frequencies would be increased with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.
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