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One of hearing loss’s most perplexing mysteries might have been solved by scientists from the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the future design of hearing aids could get an overhaul based on their findings.

The long standing notion that voices are singled out by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. Isolating specific sound levels may actually be handled by a biochemical filter according to this study.

How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear

While millions of people fight hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt to overcome that hearing loss using hearing aids.

Though a major boost in one’s ability to hear can be the outcome of using a hearing aid, people that wear a hearing-improvement device have traditionally still had trouble in environments with copious amounts of background noise. A person’s ability to discriminate voices, for example, can be seriously reduced in settings like a party or restaurant where there is a steady din of background noise.

If you’re a person who suffers from hearing loss, you very likely understand how frustrating and upsetting it can be to have a one-on-one conversation with someone in a crowded room.

For decades scientists have been investigating hearing loss. Due to 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 Identify The Tectorial Membrane

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

When vibration comes into the ear, the minute tectorial membrane manages 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 frequencies of sound.

The tones at the highest and lowest end of the spectrum appeared to be less affected by the amplification, but the study found strong amplification in the middle tones.

It’s that development that leads some to believe MIT’s groundbreaking discovery could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately enable better single-voice identification.

Hearing Aid Design of The Future

The fundamental concepts of hearing aid design haven’t changed much over the years. 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 the same. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s drawbacks becomes evident.

Amplifiers, typically, are not able to differentiate between different frequencies of sounds, because of this, the ear receives boosted levels of all sounds, including background noise. Another MIT scientist has long believed tectorial membrane research could lead to new hearing aid designs that offer better speech recognition for wearers.

The user of these new hearing aids could, theoretically, tune in to a specific voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune specific frequencies. With this concept, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds boosted to aid in reception.

Have Questions About Hearing Loss?

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References

https://www.machinedesign.com/motion-control/researchers-discover-secret-how-we-can-pick-out-voice-crowd
http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-01/16/c_137749535.htm
https://medicalxpress.com/news/2010-11-tuning-mechanism.html

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