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

Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most bewildering mysteries, and the revelation could lead to the modification of the design of future hearing aids.

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

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 deal with it.

Although a hearing aid can give a tremendous boost to one’s ability to hear, environments with a lot of background noise have typically been an issue for people who use a hearing improvement device. For instance, the constant buzz associated with settings like restaurants and parties can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to discriminate a voice.

Having a conversation with someone in a crowded room can be stressful and annoying and individuals who cope with hearing loss know this all too well.

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.

The Tectorial Membrane is Discovered

However, it was in 2007 that scientists discovered the tectorial membrane within the inner ear’s cochlea. You won’t see this microscopic membrane composed of a gel-like substance in any other parts of the body. The deciphering and delineation of sound is achieved by a mechanical filtering performed by this membrane and that may be the most intriguing thing.

When vibration comes into the ear, the minute tectorial membrane controls how water moves in reaction using small pores as it sits on little hairs in the cochlea. It was observed that the amplification produced by the membrane caused a different reaction to different frequencies of sound.

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

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

Hearing Aid Design of The Future

For years, the general design principles of hearing aids have remained relatively unchanged. 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 the same. Unfortunately, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings 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, state-of-the-art hearing aid designs which would provide better speech recognition.

The user of these new hearing aids could, theoretically, tune in to an individual voice as the hearing aid would be able to tune distinct frequencies. Only the desired frequencies would be boosted with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.

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