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

Researchers at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most bewildering mysteries, and the insight could result in the modification of the design of future hearing aids.

Findings from an MIT study debunked the notion 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 specific levels of sound.

How Background Noise Impacts Our Ability to Hear

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

Although a hearing aid can provide a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, people that use a hearing-improvement device have traditionally still had trouble in settings with a lot of background noise. A person’s ability to single out voices, for example, can be severely limited 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 frustrating and individuals who cope with hearing loss know this all too well.

Scientists have been meticulously studying hearing loss for decades. The way that sound waves travel through the ear and how those waves are differentiated, due to this body of research, was believed to be well understood.

Scientists Identify The Tectorial Membrane

But the tectorial membrane wasn’t identified by scientists until 2007. You won’t see this microscopic membrane composed of a gel-like material in any other parts of the body. What really fascinated scientists was how the membrane provides mechanical filtering that can decipher and delineate between sounds.

Minute in size, the tectorial membrane rests on delicate hairs inside the cochlea, with small pores that manage how water moves back and forth in reaction to vibrations. Researchers noted that different frequencies of sound reacted differently to the amplification produced by the membrane.

The tones at the highest and lowest range appeared to be less impacted by the amplification, but the study found strong amplification among the middle frequencies.

It’s that development that leads some to believe MIT’s groundbreaking breakthrough could be the conduit to more effective hearing aids that ultimately allow for better single-voice recognition.

The Future of Hearing Aid Design

The fundamental principles of hearing aid design haven’t changed very much over the years. A microphone to pick up sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the general elements of hearing aids which, besides a few technology tweaks, have remained unchanged. Regrettably, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes clear.

All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device including background noise. Another MIT scientist has long thought tectorial membrane exploration could lead to new hearing aid designs that provide better speech recognition for wearers.

In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune in to a specific frequency range, which would allow the user to hear isolated sounds such as a single voice. With this design, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds amplified to aid in reception.

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