How Insects are Revolutionizing Hearing Aids

Atlanta Hearing Associates' Blog.

Contemporary hearing aids have come a long way; present models are highly effective and include incredible digital functions, like wifi connectivity, that dramatically enhance a person’s ability to hear along with their overall quality of life.

But there is still room for improvement.

Specifically, in specific instances hearing aids have some challenges with two things:

  1. Locating the source of sound
  2. Eliminating background noise

But that may soon change, as the most current research in hearing aid design is being guided from a unexpected source: the world of insects.

Why insects hold the key to improved hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the same problem pertaining to hearing: the conversion and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What researchers are finding is that the method insects use to solve this problem is in ways more proficient than our own.

The internal organs of hearing in an insect are more compact and more sensitive to a bigger range of frequencies, allowing the insect to detect sounds humans are unable to hear. Insects also can sense the directionality and distance of sound in ways more exact than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has typically been directed by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have tended to offer simple amplification of incoming sound and transmission to the middle ear. But researchers are now asking a different question.

Finding inspiration from the natural world, they’re inquiring how nature—and its hundreds of millions of years of evolution—has attempted to solve the problem of sensing and perceiving sound. By assessing the hearing mechanism of assorted insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, researchers can borrow the best from each to generate a brand new mechanism that can be put to use in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.

Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones

Researchers from University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and the MRC/CSO Institute for Hearing Research (IHR) at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, will be evaluating hearing aids equipped with a unique type of miniature microphone inspired by insects.

The hope is that the new hearing aids will achieve three things:

  1. More energy-efficient microphones and electronics that will eventually lead to smaller hearing aids, lower power usage, and longer battery life.
  2. The capacity to more precisely locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while eliminating background noise.

Researchers will also be trying out 3D printing methods to improve the design and ergonomics of the new hearing aids.

The future of hearing aids

For virtually all of their history, hearing aids have been produced with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an effort to recreate the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are creating a new set of goals. Instead of attempting to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can AUGMENT it.

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