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

Researchers at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) might have cracked the code on one of hearing’s most mystifying mysteries, and the revelation 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 single out voices. According to the study, it may actually be a biochemical filter that enables us to tune in to individual sound levels.

How Our Ability to Hear is Affected by Background Noise

While millions of people battle hearing loss, only a fraction of them attempt to deal with that hearing loss with the use of hearing aids.

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 typically been an issue for people who wear a hearing improvement device. For instance, the continuous buzz surrounding settings like restaurants and parties can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to discriminate a voice.

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

For decades scientists have been studying hearing loss. The way that sound waves move through the ear and how those waves are distinguished, due to this body of research, was believed to be well understood.

Scientists Discover The Tectorial Membrane

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

Minuscule in size, the tectorial membrane rests on delicate hairs inside the cochlea, with small pores that manage how water moves back and forth in response to vibrations. It was observed that the amplification created by the membrane caused a different reaction to different tones.

The middle frequencies were shown to have strong amplification and the frequencies at the lower and higher ends of the scale were less affected.

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

Hearing Aid Design of The Future

For years, the general design principles of hearing aids have remained rather unchanged. Tweaks and fine-tuning have helped with some improvements, but most hearing aids are generally made up of microphones which receive sounds and a loudspeaker that amplifies them. Unfortunately, that’s where one of the design’s shortcomings becomes clear.

Amplifiers, normally, are unable to discern between different frequencies of sounds, because of this, the ear receives boosted levels of all sounds, 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.

Theoretically, these new-and-improved hearing aids could functionally tune to a specific frequency range, which would enable the user to hear isolated sounds such as a single voice. Only the desired frequencies would be increased with these hearing aids and everything else would be left alone.

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