Researchers at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) might have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most bewildering mysteries, and the revelation could lead to the modification of the design of future hearing aids.
Results from an MIT study debunked the belief that neural processing is what allows us to single out voices. According to the study, it may actually be a biochemical filter that allows us to tune in to individual sound levels.
How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise
Only a small fraction of the millions of people who cope with hearing loss actually use hearing aids to manage it.
Though a significant boost in one’s ability to hear can be the outcome of using a hearing aid, settings with lots of background noise have typically been an issue for people who use a hearing improvement device. For instance, the constant buzz surrounding settings like restaurants and parties can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to discriminate a voice.
If you’re a person who is experiencing hearing loss, you most likely recognize how frustrating and stressful it can be to have a one-on-one conversation with somebody in a crowded room.
Scientists have been closely investigating 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
But the tectorial membrane wasn’t discovered by scientists until 2007. You won’t see this microscopic membrane composed of a gel-like material in any other parts of the body. The deciphering and delineation of sound is accomplished by a mechanical filtering carried out by this membrane and that may be the most intriguing thing.
When vibration comes into the ear, the tiny tectorial membrane controls how water moves in reaction using small pores as it sits on little hairs in the cochlea. It was noted that the amplification produced by the membrane caused a different reaction to different tones.
The frequencies at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum seemed to be less affected by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification among the middle frequencies.
It’s that progress that leads some to believe MIT’s groundbreaking discovery could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately enable better single-voice recognition.
The Future of Hearing Aid Design
For years, the basic design principles of hearing aids have remained relatively unchanged. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but the majority of hearing aids are basically made up of microphones which receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes apparent.
All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device and that includes background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT researcher, result in new, state-of-the-art hearing aid designs which would offer better speech recognition.
In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a specific frequency range, which would permit the wearer to hear isolated sounds like 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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