Researchers at the famous 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 could get an overhaul based on their findings.

Findings from an MIT study debunked the notion that neural processing is what lets us pick out voices. According to the study, it might actually be a biochemical filter that enables us to tune in to individual sound levels.

How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear

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

Though a major boost in one’s ability to hear can be the result of using a hearing aid, environments with a lot of background noise have typically been an issue for people who wear a hearing improvement device. For example, the constant buzz surrounding settings like parties and restaurants can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to discriminate a voice.

Having a discussion with someone in a crowded room can be upsetting and annoying and people who deal with hearing loss know this all too well.

Scientists have been closely studying hearing loss for decades. 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.

The Tectorial Membrane is Discovered

But the tectorial membrane wasn’t identified by scientists until 2007. The ear is the only place on the body you will find this gel-like membrane. What really fascinated scientists was how the membrane provides mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.

When vibration comes into the ear, the tiny tectorial membrane controls how water moves in response using small pores as it rests on little hairs in the cochlea. Researchers noted that different frequencies of sound reacted differently to the amplification made by the membrane.

The middle tones were shown to have strong amplification and the frequencies 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 principles of hearing aid design haven’t changed very much over the years. A microphone to detect sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the general components of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained unchanged. Unfortunately, that’s where one of the design’s drawbacks becomes clear.

All frequencies are increased with an amplification device and that includes background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, result in new, state-of-the-art hearing aid designs which would offer better speech recognition.

The user of these new hearing aids could, in theory, tune in to an individual voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune specific frequencies. With this design, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds amplified to aid in reception.

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