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

One of hearing loss’s most puzzling mysteries may have been solved by scientists from the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the insight could result in the modification of the design of future hearing aids.

Results from an MIT study debunked the notion that neural processing is what lets us pick out voices. According to the study, it may actually be a biochemical filter that enables 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 suffer from hearing loss actually use hearing aids to deal with it.

Though a hearing aid can give a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, people that use a hearing-improvement device have traditionally still had trouble in settings with copious amounts of background noise. For example, the constant buzz associated with settings like restaurants and parties can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to single out a voice.

If you’re someone who is afflicted with hearing loss, you most likely understand how annoying and upsetting it can be to have a personal conversation with someone in a crowded room.

Scientists have been closely investigating hearing loss for decades. As a result of those efforts, the way in which 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 Identified

But the tectorial membrane wasn’t discovered by scientists until 2007. You won’t find 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 might be the most fascinating thing.

When vibration comes into the ear, the tiny tectorial membrane manages how water moves in response using small pores as it sits on little hairs in the cochlea. Researchers noticed that different tones reacted differently to the amplification made by the membrane.

The middle frequencies were shown to have strong amplification and the tones at the lower and higher ends of the scale were less affected.

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

The Future of Hearing Aid Design

The basic concepts of hearing aid design haven’t changed much over the years. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but the majority of hearing aids are essentially made up of microphones that pick up sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. This is, regrettably, where the shortcoming of this design becomes obvious.

Amplifiers, typically, are unable to discern between different levels of sounds, which means the ear gets boosted levels of all sounds, including background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, result in new, innovative hearing aid designs which would offer better speech recognition.

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 specific frequencies. Only the chosen frequencies would be increased with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.

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