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 bewildering mysteries, and the future design of hearing aids may get an overhaul based on their findings.

Results from an MIT study debunked the belief that neural processing is what lets us single out voices. According to the study, it might actually be a biochemical filter that allows us to tune in to individual levels of sound.

How Background Noise Effects Our Ability to Hear

Only a small portion of the millions of individuals who cope with hearing loss actually use hearing aids to deal with it.

Though a significant boost in one’s ability to hear can be the outcome of using a hearing aid, people that wear a hearing-improvement device have commonly still struggled in settings with a lot of background noise. 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 somebody in a crowded room can be stressful and annoying and individuals who deal with hearing loss know this all too well.

For decades scientists have been investigating hearing loss. 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.

Scientists Discover The Tectorial Membrane

However, it was in 2007 that scientists discovered the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. The ear is the only place on the body you will find this gel-like membrane. What really fascinated scientists was how the membrane supplies mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.

Minuscule in size, the tectorial membrane sits on tiny hairs inside the cochlea, with small pores that control how water moves back and forth in reaction to vibrations. It was noted that the amplification created by the membrane caused a different reaction to different frequencies of sound.

The tones at the highest and lowest range appeared to be less affected by the amplification, but the study revealed strong amplification in 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 allow for better single-voice identification.

The Future of Hearing Aid Design

The basic principles of hearing aid design haven’t changed very much over the years. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some enhancements, but most hearing aids are generally comprised of microphones that receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. This is, unfortunately, where the drawback of this design becomes apparent.

Amplifiers, typically, are not able to differentiate between different levels of sounds, because of this, the ear receives increased levels of all sounds, including background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT researcher, lead to new, innovative hearing aid designs which would provide better speech recognition.

The user of these new hearing aids could, theoretically, tune in to an individual 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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