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 overhauling of the design of future hearing aids.

Findings from an MIT study debunked the idea that neural processing is what allows us to pick out voices. According to the study, it may actually be a biochemical filter that enables us to tune in to specific levels of sound.

How Background Noise Effects Our Ability to Hear

Only a small fraction of the millions of individuals who suffer from hearing loss actually use hearing aids to deal with it.

Though a hearing aid can give a significant boost to one’s ability to hear, those who wear a hearing-improvement device have traditionally still had trouble in settings with a lot of background noise. For instance, the steady buzz surrounding settings like parties and restaurants can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to discriminate a voice.

If you’re someone who is afflicted with hearing loss, you most likely know how annoying and stressful it can be to have a one-on-one conversation with somebody in a crowded room.

Scientists have been meticulously investigating hearing loss for decades. As a result of 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.

The Tectorial Membrane is Identified

But the tectorial membrane wasn’t identified by scientists until 2007. 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.

Minute in size, the tectorial membrane rests on little hairs inside the cochlea, with small pores that control how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. Researchers noted that different tones reacted differently to the amplification made by the membrane.

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

Some scientists think that more effective hearing aids that can better distinguish individual voices will be the outcome of this groundbreaking MIT study.

The Future of Hearing Aid Design

For years, the basic design principles of hearing aids have remained relatively unchanged. 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. This is, regrettably, where the drawback of this design becomes apparent.

All frequencies are boosted with an amplification device including background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT scientist, lead to new, innovative hearing aid designs which would provide better speech recognition.

Theoretically, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune in to a distinct frequency range, which would enable the user to hear isolated sounds like a single voice. With this design, the volume of those sounds would be the only sounds increased to aid in reception.

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