One of hearing loss’s most puzzling mysteries might have been solved by scientists from the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the revelation could lead to the overhauling of the design of future hearing aids.

Results from an MIT study debunked the idea that neural processing is what lets us pick out voices. Tuning into individual sound levels might actually be managed by a biochemical filter according to this study.

How Our Ability to Hear is Impacted by Background Noise

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 result of using a hearing aid, settings with lots of background noise have traditionally been an issue for individuals who use a hearing improvement device. For instance, the continuous buzz surrounding settings like restaurants and parties can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to single out a voice.

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

For decades scientists have been investigating hearing loss. Due to those efforts, the way that 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 identified the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t see this microscopic membrane made 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.

Minuscule in size, the tectorial membrane rests 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 produced by the membrane caused a different reaction to different tones.

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

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 recognition.

The Future of Hearing Aid Design

For years, the basic design principles of hearing aids have remained fairly unchanged. A microphone to detect sound and a loudspeaker to amplify it are the general 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 apparent.

Amplifiers, usually, are not able to differentiate between different levels of sounds, because of this, the ear gets boosted levels of all sounds, that includes background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT researcher, lead to 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 a specific voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune specific frequencies. Only the desired frequencies would be boosted with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.

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