One of hearing loss’s most puzzling mysteries may have been solved by scientists from the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the revelation could result in the modification of the design of future hearing aids.

The enduring notion that voices are isolated by neural processing has been debunked by an MIT study. According to the study, it might actually be a biochemical filter that allows us to tune in to individual sound levels.

How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise

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

Though a significant boost in one’s ability to hear can be the result of using a hearing aid, those that wear a hearing-improvement device have traditionally still had trouble in environments with a lot of background noise. For example, the steady buzz associated with 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 recognize how annoying 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. The way that sound waves move through the ear and how those waves are differentiated, due to this body of research, was thought to be well understood.

The Tectorial Membrane is Identified

However, it was in 2007 that scientists discovered the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. The ear is the only place on the body you will see this gel-like membrane. The deciphering and delineation of sound is accomplished by a mechanical filtering carried out by this membrane and that might be the most intriguing thing.

When vibration enters the ear, the minute tectorial membrane controls how water moves in reaction using small pores as it rests on little hairs in the cochlea. It was observed that the amplification created 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 impacted by the amplification, but the study found strong amplification among the middle frequencies.

It’s that development that leads some scientists to believe MIT’s groundbreaking breakthrough 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. Adjustments and fine-tuning have helped with some enhancements, but most hearing aids are basically comprised of microphones which pick up sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Unfortunately, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes evident.

Amplifiers, normally, are unable to differentiate between different levels of sounds, which means the ear gets increased levels of all sounds, that includes background noise. Tectorial membrane research could, according to another MIT researcher, result in new, state-of-the-art hearing aid designs which would provide better speech recognition.

In theory, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune 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 increased to aid in reception.

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